Over 900 parish residents packed into a standing room only crowd at Hahnville High Schoolís auditorium on Monday for a town hall meeting on the potential effects of the FEMA flood remapping process and ensuing flood insurance rate increases due to the Biggert-Waters Act passed by Congress last year.
As a symbol of their concern over their properties, especially those residing in newly determined low-lying flood zones, many approached a handrail in the front of the auditorium where they placed a house key symbolizing the potential loss of their homes.
"What FEMA came in here and did to us is criminal. They scared you," Parish President V.J. St. Pierre said in reference to an April 1 open house meeting in which FEMA gave people estimates, sometimes at over $20,000 per year, on what they may have to pay in annual flood insurance premiums.
St. Pierre vowed to begin a class-action lawsuit against FEMA, in conjunction with similarly effected parishes, if the hugely increased flood insurance rates are allowed to stand.
To representatives of the many congressional offices in attendance, including the offices of Congressmen Cedric Richmond and Bill Cassidy and Senators Mary Landrieu and David Vitter, St. Pierre delivered a message asking them to support the West Bank hurricane levee protection project.
"The average cost to raise your home three feet is $165,000. It would cost us $1 billion to raise 600 repetitive loss homes in this parish," he said. "Congressional representatives listen closely to this – we would rather you provide us with half a billion dollars to build one levee system."
Before the meeting, Bayou Gauche resident Robert Taylor busied himself with handing out keys to the entering crowd members.
"They are taking away my house because I canít afford the $20,000 increase," he said. "It is unfair, based on questionable science that denies hard facts and it was done before anybody knew about it."
Taylor was quick to add that the fight against the Biggert-Waters Act was much larger than St. Charles Parish. The Biggert-Waters act is detrimental because it does away with the grandfathering system that allows rates for homes that met elevation standards when built to not be penalized when maps change.
"Iím one small guy. None of these people on stage can change this, none of these people in the crowd can change this, but the county needs to know and this is just a start," he said.
In addition to St. Pierre, numerous FEMA representatives, St. Charles Parishís Coastal Zone Manager Earl Matherne, flood map expert Dr. Joseph Suhayda and Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon gave presentations.
During the presentations, those in the crowd showed their frustration by holding up signs and occasionally shouting out at the stage, especially during presentations by FEMA representatives.
During one such notable exchange, Mark Lujan, FEMA Region 6 flood insurance specialist, said flood insurance rates will rise under the Biggert-Waters Act on homes considered repetitive losses, even if they were damaged by something other than a flood.
"Any time your home is substantially damaged by an event, even it itís a fire, it will be considered substantially damaged. That would mean if the damages exceed more that 50 percent of the list price of the home," Lujan said.
A voice shot out of the crowd.
"Our homes arenít worth anything!" the anonymous voice said to mass applause.
Later, Donelon broke the problem faced by the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) down for the crowd.
"We in Louisiana have benefited much more than any other state," he said.
Donelon said prior to Superstorm Sandy that bashed the northeast in August 2012, $15 billion of $18 billion paid out to 12 states under NFIP were for damages Louisiana received in hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Another $10 billion was paid out to New Jersey and New York after Sandy, leaving NFIP owing $28 billion to the federal government.
Despite the amount paid out to Louisiana, Donelon said the new regulations were not the answer.
"These requirements are draconian," he said.
Following the meeting, Lisa Taylor, who was helping her husband Robert pick up the keys deposited by the audience, pointed out that although Louisiana did receive billions in aid following the 2005 hurricanes, St. Charles Parish has received just $100 million in insurance payouts since 1968.
"That is only a drop in the bucket," she said.
Lisa said she was not impressed by the presentations.
"They didnít tell us anything we didnít already know. They are just trying to pacify us and tell us lies," she said. "The rates are coming, itís just a matter of when."
Paradis residents Beverly and Melvin Parks walked out of the meeting before it was completely finished.
"We built in 1970 at the elevation they required at that time and now they are saying we have to pay more," Melvin said.
Both said they felt like nothing had been accomplished.
"Itís just wait and see," Beverly said. "You canít fight the government."
Josh Revolta stayed until the very end and was one of the last crowd members lingering in the auditorium.
"I didnít learn anything I didnít already know. They still arenít giving any hard numbers," he said. "I wish I would have asked about base flood elevation so I would know exactly how this is going to affect us."
Revolta said he and his wife moved to Mimosa Park from Metairie in 2005, only two weeks before Katrina struck, when their oldest child was seven.
"We moved out here for the school district and because at that time you could get a better house for less," he said.
Now, nearly eight years later the Revoltas have had two more children.
"We were actually looking to move into a bigger house in the same area. You would be amazed at how much smaller your house seems once you have more kids," he said.
Revolta was concerned that it would not be possible for him to sell his home now because even though it has never flooded, it will be considered over a foot under the base flood elevation offered and subject to large flood insurance rate increases under the new map.
"That would raise my house note $500 a month," he said. "Financially it would probably make more sense if we walked away from it, but it would be hard to have to explain to our children why they have to move and change schools."