BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana lawmakers were urged Wednesday to reach out to their colleagues in other states, to try to pressure Congress to lessen dramatic flood insurance rate increases hitting homeowners across flood-vulnerable regions.
Don Cravins, chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, urged members of the state House and Senate insurance committees to band together with lawmakers in other affected states, to draw national and congressional attention to the skyrocketing premium costs.
Lawmakers pledged to offer whatever assistance they could to explain the impact the flood insurance costs will have on homeowners and businesses in the state and the ripple effect on local economies.
"We have to be able to sell this on a human perspective because this is affecting people's lives. We have people who are afraid they're going to lose their homes," said Rep. Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette.
The rates charged through the National Flood Insurance Program are slated to rise steeply for many properties around the country, including Louisiana, as part of a bipartisan overhaul of the program passed by Congress last year to cut the federal government's costs.
Members of Louisiana's congressional delegation are seeking to keep lower rates in place, but that has stalled in Congress so far.
About 480,000 Louisiana homes and businesses have federal flood insurance.
Until the changes enacted by Congress, the flood insurance program subsidized rates for people who lived in areas without flood maps or who built their homes and then saw the maps and their risk levels changed.
But the program overhaul stripped the subsidy provisions starting this month, and homeowners and businesses are receiving notifications that their insurance bills are going up, in some instances by thousands of dollars.
Supporters of the change say that the federal government can't afford to subsidize insurance costs for people who live in areas vulnerable to flooding, citing billions of dollars in payouts for Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy.
Louisiana officials said the flood maps drawn up by FEMA don't recognize local levees or other flood mitigation efforts like pumps that could lower a community's risk of flooding. Garret Graves, who is Gov. Bobby Jindal's chief coastal adviser, called the flood insurance rates "distorted."
Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, an insurance agent, described one customer who got a $14,155 insurance bill for a home valued at $90,000, while another with a current annual flood insurance premium of $400 will have to pay $24,000 to renew the policy.
Johns said he's frustrated with the "cavalier attitude" of people who work for the flood insurance program and assume homeowners facing these steep rate hikes live in expensive beachfront property, rather than 40 to 50 miles or more away from the coast.
Michael Hecht, CEO of Greater New Orleans Regional Economic Development, said his organization has been working to dispel a widely held notion that the rate hikes are falling on wealthy people with vacation properties and that intervention would be a "beach bailout."
Hecht urged lawmakers to "to turn the volume up around the nation" about the issue.
"I am getting increasingly optimistic that we are going to fix this. But the sooner we can fix this the better," he said.