Flood map delays spur angst for Gulf Coast

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The government says there may be no cause for concern.

WASHINGTON -- Delays in releasing new federal maps of New Orleans' most flood-prone neighborhoods have slowed rebuilding, frustrated homeowners and created uncertainty about the future of the region ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

And the angst may all be for nothing, the government says.

Residents of the city and surrounding communities have waited since the fall for the maps that will help determine how much flood insurance they will need to rebuild. Under current maps, 80 percent of New Orleans lies in a federally designated flood plain; that figure probably will rise.

Without the maps, homeowners say they do not know if they can afford to stay and buy the additional insurance required by mortgages or if they will be forced to leave and move farther inland.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is issuing preliminary new building standards as early as this week, says homeowners do not have to make that decision now.

They say people who build now will not have to pay higher flood insurance rates even if the new maps and building standards eventually require higher rates. Only people building after the new maps and standards are finished will face higher rates, they say. That process could take another year.


The confusion is the latest example of Gulf Coast residents' distrust of FEMA, which is widely blamed for the government's slow and lackluster storm response. Katrina, which hit Aug. 29, left more than 1,300 people dead and hundreds of thousands homeless.

Asked why so many on the Gulf Coast believe the maps will have an immediate effect on insurance rates, FEMA flood map spokesman Butch Kinerney acknowledged, "They won't believe us."

He also said FEMA has not done a good enough job explaining its policy.

New Orleans native John Hyatt returned to the city after the waters receded to find his home gutted and covered with mold from 5 feet of water. Hyatt is rebuilding his house, but he fears his annual $469 flood insurance premium will double or triple when the maps are issued.

"There's just not a lot of money," said Hyatt, 62, a cargo shipping consultant who cashed in about $60,000 of his retirement savings to repair his gutted, moldy shell of a house.

"We might be faced with a couple of different options -- like not take the insurance and hope for the best," Hyatt said.

After months of delays, FEMA is expected to issue advisory standards this week suggesting how high homes need to be rebuilt to be considered safer from floods in Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes in southern Louisiana. Orleans includes the city of New Orleans.

The standards will be followed by geographic maps later this spring that probably will expand the boundary of the region's flood plain -- the area with the greatest potential to flood each year.

The flood plain maps have not been updated since the mid-1980s.

The preliminary building standards and maps must be approved by local officials, many of whom will spend the next year negotiating the details.

Construction begun before the maps are approved will be insured under current rates, FEMA's Kinerney said. Only projects built after the maps are adopted will feel the rate change, he said.

No need to wait

"You don't need to wait on us, and you don't need to wait on these maps," Kinerney said. "Rates are not going up for anyone in compliance. As long as you're in compliance now when you build your house, you'll always be in compliance."

The problem comes as Congress considers revamping the FEMA-run National Flood Insurance Program, which will pay out an estimated $23 billion in flood insurance claims as a result of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The program collects about $2 billion annually in premiums, and is depending on loans from the Treasury to fulfill current claims.

Bud Schauerte, who administered the flood insurance program in the first Bush administration between 1991 and 1993, said the maps will all but certainly raise premium rates along the Gulf Coast.

"The liability is just too great; it's too much of a risk," Schauerte said. "This is why you have insurance -- to protect yourself. So they can't afford it? Maybe they should move inland if it costs more."

FEMA has issued the advisory maps in three Mississippi counties and 11 other Louisiana parishes that were not protected by levees when Katrina hit. Communities ultimately can reject the final federal standards, but they rarely do as they would then be ineligible for future flood relief.

In Gulfport, Miss., Mayor Brent Warr is pushing FEMA to scale back new flood plain building standards that raise the base of a house by 2 feet -- from 15 feet to 17 feet.

The new elevation levels would be too high, Warr said, and would result in costly insurance premiums for about 600 homeowners in his city who cannot build to those standards. Homeowners who refuse to pay the higher insurance rates will almost certainly see their property values depreciate.

Those concerns are mirrored in the New Orleans area, too, where the map delays have exhausted the patience of residents.

"It is definitely slowing the process for people to come back and repair their homes," said Jefferson Parish flood plain manager Tom Rodrigue. "It's a joke."

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