This week in New Orleans' St. Charles Parish, FEMA unveiled new preliminary flood insurance rate maps in a pair of presentations, one for Parish Council members and one for Parish President V.J. St. Pierre, outlining base flood elevation level changes throughout the parish.
The new maps, if approved by the St. Charles Parish Council, will override and replace the current flood insurance rate maps, which were put in place in 1992, nine years after St. Charles Parish entered into the National Flood Insurance Program in 1983. The new maps reflect the $100 million post-Katrina levee system extension that now protects vast swaths of the parish's east bank, part of a $14.6 billion Lake Pontchartrain and vicinity project designed to better protect parts of New Orleans and surrounding areas against storm surge. As a result, St. Charles residents living along the parish's east bank can anticipate lower insurance costs once the new maps are approved, adopted and put into place sometime next year.
The west bank of St. Charles Parish, however, is a different story. The current flood maps take into consideration the Sunset Drainage District, which handles levees, drainage and canals for a 16.4-square-mile area that includes Des Allemands, Bayou Gauche and Paradis. The updated maps do not consider the west bank levee system in calculations of new base flood elevation levels, meaning that west bank residents will most likely see significant increases in their flood insurance costs.
"In general, you've got half of the population living on the east bank, and about 80 percent of those people will be affected by this," said St. Charles Parish Coastal Zone Management Administrator Earl Matherne Jr. "That's 40 percent of the parish population who will see a reduction in insurance costs. And then, you've got half the population on the west bank. And half of them will be affected. So, roughly 30 percent of residents in the parish will see an increase in cost."
Matherne said that while hard numbers regarding cost increases or decreases will be calculated by insurance companies based on new elevation levels, residents in the Bayou Gauche area will be particularly affected; their base flood elevation levels could potentially increase from 12 inches to 5, 6, 7, even 10 feet. Conversely, residents living along the levee on the east bank could see a comparable decrease.
According to FEMA Region Six Natural Hazards Program Specialist David Hiegel, FEMA has in the last seven years or so revised its standards for levee certification. "Scientific understanding of details have improved," Hiegel said. "There is no certification that says the 1992 levee systems meet our requirements."
Other changes residents can expect to see when the new flood maps are adopted is a shift in the process of "grandfathering in" a property with regard to flood insurance rates; a house built using base flood elevation levels established in 1992 will be automatically upgraded to new levels, and homeowners will be expected to pay increases until the actuarial rate is realized.
New regulations like these are part of the The Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law in July of this year. The act enables increases in insurance rates for high-risk areas, as well as frequently or substantially damaged properties. It also stipulates that residents can see insurance premium increases, previously capped at 10 percent, up to 20 percent.
"I'm not excited about what I'm hearing," St. Pierre said after the presentation Thursday morning. "But it's important to let residents know what they can expect."
Over the coming months, St. Charles Parish officials will announce the beginning of the process in local publications, and arrange public hearings during which residents are encouraged to voice opinions and concerns. The comment and appeals period will last 90 days, during which FEMA will host meetings and, if asked, host open houses to share information.
Once the FIRM is finalized, it will go before the parish council for adoption; if there are concerns that cannot be resolved, the matter will go before a third party national scientific resolution panel. One all issues are resolved, FEMA will submit a "letter of determination," that will begin a six-month period before the maps will be officially adopted.
Based on initial FEMA estimates, premiums through the National Flood Insurance Program for a $250,000 single-family, one-story home in a high to moderate risk zone that sits 4 feet below base flood elevations could come to $9,500 a year. If the structure is at the base flood elevation level, it would cost about $1,410 a year, and if it's 3 feet above base flood elevations, it could cost $427 a year.