By The Editorial Board, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
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A top federal flood insurance official promised a group of South Louisiana parish presidents and U.S. Sen. David Vitter in early May that the Federal Emergency Management Agency would hold off on issuing new flood maps until it worked out all the flaws. But FEMA didn't keep its promise. On July 2, the agency released new preliminary flood maps for Jefferson, Orleans and St. Bernard parishes.
Now Sen. Vitter is asking FEMA Director Craig Fugate to rescind the maps until the agency figures out how to properly credit communities for non-federal levees and pumps.
That is a reasonable request. FEMA should have abided by the promise made in May by associate administrator David Miller, who oversees the National Flood Insurance Program.
It makes no sense for FEMA to issue maps that are lacking in significant ways. The agency argued that the maps are preliminary and that parishes have 90 days to express their concerns.
That's true, but 90 days isn't very long to sort out what in some cases are complicated disagreements. FEMA also says that many residents will see their insurance rates go down because of improvements in the federal flood protection system since Hurricane Katrina.
But that will be small comfort to residents and businesses that get slammed despite doing everything FEMA told them to do when they rebuilt.
There are very real consequences to the new maps. Flood insurance rates for residents will be based on the level of risk indicated by them. And if the flood protection in place isn't accurately reflected, homeowners and businesses are going to take an unfair financial hit.
Unless Congress intervenes, the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Actpassed last year will make the insurance rate increases much worse for some homeowners. The act is phasing in market rates for coverage. It also did away with the grandfather provision that shielded property owners from rate spikes if they had built to proper specifications but later were reclassified because of new flood maps.
The combination of bad maps and Biggert-Waters could put some residents in a serious bind.
"Earlier this year, FEMA caused panic in many parishes in south Louisiana by predicting future flood insurance rates based on incomplete and inaccurate maps. FEMA has yet to finalize its procedures to accurately credit all flood control features," Sen. Vitter said in his July 10 letter to Mr. Fugate. The agency is repeating that mistake with the release of the latest maps, he said.
"Even more serious is the fact that FEMA's action regarding these maps triggers a short 90-day appeals process, putting communities affected under the gun. The result could be that they will have to bear the cost of your mistakes for years to come," Sen. Vitter said in the letter.
In Jefferson Parish, for example, FEMA miscalculated the capacity of a pumping station. Several parish communities also aren't included in the federal levee system. Without credit for local or private levees, Lafitte, Crown Point and Barataria residents are likely to see flood insurance become unaffordable.
Some coastal Louisiana residents have been told they could see bills as high as $25,000 per year. And that is for people whose homes have never flooded.
After an outcry about problems with flood maps issued earlier this year, FEMA announced a pilot program a week ago to come up with a new approach to defining risk in areas protected by local and private levees. Plaquemines, Lafourche, Terrebonne, St. Tammany and St. Charles parishes, which rely on locally built levees, are participating in the study.
That pilot project will be important for drawing future maps, but that doesn't help communities that are under pressure now.
As Sen. Vitter pointed out, FEMA is still developing its "LAMP" process to ensure communities get credit for "non-accredited levees." At the May 9 meeting, he said, Mr. Miller made a commitment that no further preliminary maps would be issued until FEMA finalized that process. "He committed to this because doing otherwise would lead to publishing incomplete maps with inaccurate information, leading to misleading estimates about future flood insurance rates and possibly improper rates," Sen. Vitter said in his letter.
Given all of this, it is confounding that FEMA issued more preliminary maps this month.
Congress moved closer Thursday to putting a one-year hold on the implementation of Biggert-Waters. That was good news for coastal residents.
But Mr. Fugate also should ensure that his agency doesn't stick communities with maps that are flat out wrong.
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