Floods and insurance: Congress renews NFIP debate, Louisiana braces
The Times-Picayune (New Orleans)
By Richard Rainey
March 14, 2017
Looking down through the open door of U.S. Coast Guard helicopter, the most recognizable sight for U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy in the vast expanse of Lafourche Parish wetlands below was a herd of grazing cows.
“That probably looks like your district,” U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, said to the Wisconsin Republican, more used to pastures than marshland.
“I feel right at home,” Duffy answered.
South Louisiana’s watery landscape may be alien territory for Duffy, but Scalise, the third-ranked Republican in the House, thought it important he see it. Duffy is the new chairman a House subcommittee on housing and insurance and will run point on this year’s renewal of the National Flood Insurance Program.
If Congress doesn’t act by Sept. 30, the program will expire, throwing uncertainty into the insurance market and the ledgers of most of Louisiana’s 4.5 million residents — a number of whom suffered flooding last year for the first time ever.
The airborne conversation between Scalise, Duffy and Coast Guard Capt. Mel Bouboulis sprawled from coastal restoration to underwater pipelines and oil prices as the helicopter looped through gray skies from Lakefront Airport in New Orleans to Port Fourchon and back. But it was the wetlands’ crisscross of earthen mounds, most with tawny streaks of road along their crests, that Scalise wanted Duffy to see.
These local levees were to Scalise a key symbol of where the newest version NFIP needed to focus. When the Federal Emergency Management Agency produced its latest elevation maps to predict flooding risks in southeastern Louisiana, it sometimes did not recognize many of those local or private bulwarks for their abilities to hold back floodwaters. As a result, some residents and businesses saw their insurance rates jump as if there were no levees at all.
Improving how risk is accurately assessed in flood maps is just one of several tweaks Scalise, his colleagues, business interests and environmentalists will mull this year. Also on deck are ways to stabilize the marketplace and possibly entice private insurers to once again offer flood policies.
Established in 1968 after Hurricane Betsy scared away private insurers, the National Flood Insurance Program, or NFIP, allows property owners to buy financial protection against a so-called 100-year flood event, which has a 1 percent chance of happening in any given year.
The NFIP finds itself again on shaky ground. Its accounts are $24.6 billion in arrears from massive payouts to victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Political fights in Congress let the program lapse 18 times before a major overhaul was finally agreed upon in June 2012.
“The reforms that were made I think helped sustain the program, helped keep it going, but of course it expires Sept. 30 of this year,” Scalise said. “And so as we start this process, chairman Duffy wanted to make sure, before he actually writes a bill and starts moving it through the process, that he gets the information to find out how the program can work even better.”
The helicopter tour for the two congressmen coincided with several efforts this month to jump-start debate over what the next version of the NFIP should look like. Hearings have already begun in the House, and the Senate is expected to start its conversation this week.
The regional economic development organization Greater New Orleans Inc. hosted Duffy, Scalise and other stakeholders at a roundtable discussion last week to push what it sees as the four biggest areas in need of improvement: mapping, mitigation, affordability and increased participation in the program.