Little more than a week after officials from 14 parishes took a trip to Washington, D.C. to lobby against potential flood insurance rate hikes, some of those same officials convened with Sen. David Vitter at the home of a Bayou Gauche couple.
The issue at hand was the fight against the Biggert-Waters Act, which was attached to a transportation bill that passed last year. It would disallow the grandfathering of insurance policies on homes that were placed above base flood elevation at the time of their construction.
The Biggert-Waters Act comes as new FEMA maps have been introduced that would not recognize some current flood barriers, such as the Sunset Drainage District levee, and lower base flood elevations in other areas that have never flooded before.
The communities of Luling, Boutte, Paradis, Bayou Gauche and Des Allemands would be the most affected in the parish, potentially requiring homeowners to pay thousands to tens of thousands of dollars for flood insurance premiums each year instead of only the few hundred dollars they currently pay.
St. Charles Parish President V.J. St. Pierre said if the large flood insurance rate hikes expected under the Biggert-Waters Act are allowed to go through many local residents may have to leave their homes.
"Imagine for a second what it must feel like," he said. "You sacrifice and you work for your entire life to afford a home to raise your family. You may have even started a business or worked long hours at a local job and now because youíve done everything right, built or purchased homes that were built to the correct elevations at the time of construction, you could be forced out at no fault of your own."
The event was held at the home of Bayou Gauche residents Robert and Lisa Taylor, who were quoted by FEMA as potentially having to pay $28,000 per year in flood insurance if the Biggert-Waters Act is fully enacted and the FEMA maps are accepted.
The Taylors have been part of a grassroots effort to bring attention to the Biggert-Waters Act and its potential negative effects on large parts of the West Bank of St. Charles Parish. They recently collected more than 1,000 keys from local residents who packed into a town hall meeting in mid-April to hear about the potential flood insurance rate increases.
Robert became emotional as he spoke to the gathered crowd.
"Despite never having flooded before, building to specifications that FEMA gave us and even building our own levees to protect us, FEMA has decided we are now a flood hazard area," he said. "To the rest of the country heed this warning – the Biggert-Waters Act and FEMA are coming to you. Millions of homes in this country are going to be deemed as flood risks, even where flooding has never been an issue before. You are at risk."
The Taylors presented Vitter with a container holding all of the keys they collected at the town hall meeting.
"These 1,109 keys represent the homes and businesses that residents turned in at our last town hall meeting. Take them back to Washington, tell the legislators there that unless this law changes these keys are useless to us," Robert said. "Our community and thousands of others across the country will cease to exist if they donít take action now. From all across this nation with one clear voice and one clear message, we will say no."
Vitter accepted the container and promised he would spread the communityís message.
"Iíll be personally traveling with it to Washington to help make this point which is so important. I am going to personally deliver it to FEMA and then before have it on the Senate floor to talk about it," he said.
Vitter said he is at the forefront of building as coalition of lawmakers who will support changing or repealing the Biggert-Waters Act.
Last week, just prior to the visit from local officials, Sen. Mary Landrieu proposed an amendment that would delay the introduction of any rate increase for at least six months until a study can be completed on the potential effects. Vitter signed onto the amendment as a co-author two days later, however, Sen. Pat Toomey, of Pennsylvania, blocked a Senate vote on the amendment.
Vitter said Toomey, a fellow Republican, should not have stopped the amendment.
"I spoke to Sen. Toomey at some length and, No. 1, I think that he got a number of his facts wrong and doesnít yet understand the issue. No. 2, he didnít just oppose and amendment, he blocked a vote on an amendment and I think that is just outrageous in principle," he said.
If anything, Vitter said Toomeyís actions helped spread the word about the Biggert-Waters Act.
"Even though we did not get a vote, that exercise this past week was very helpful because it helped spur the coalition and helped build the coalition," he said. "We got a lot of support, maybe not Pat Toomey, but folks from the Gulf Coast along with the Sandy area along with California along with others. Many folks said this is not some narrow south Louisiana issue, thatís the fact, and the more we can get that fact across the better we will do."
GNO Inc. was responsible for putting together both the D.C. trip and the event at the Taylor residence.
Michael Hecht, GNO Inc. president and CEO, said his organizationís goal is to protect the communities that would be the most affected by the Biggert-Waters Act and that he has already received assurances from congressional delegates in New York, New Jersey, Alabama and Mississippi who will join Louisianaís effort to stop flood insurance rate hikes.
"Whatís happening in south Plaquemines Parish is going to happen in southern Manahattan, itís going to happen in St. Charles and it is going to happen in Sacramento. So weíre not in this alone and thatís a good thing," he said.
Also speaking at the event were St. John the Baptist Parish President Natalie Robottom, Jefferson Parish President John Young and Terrebonne Parish President Michel Claudet.
Those who attended, but did not speak were Lafourche Parish President Charlotte Randolph, St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel, State Rep. Greg Miller, New Orleans City Councilman James Gray, St. Charles Parish Assessor Tab Troxler, St. Charles Parish Councilwoman-at-large Carolyn Schexnaydre, St. Charles Parish Councilwoman Traci Fletcher and President of the River Regions Chamber of Commerce Mike Palamone.
|Sen. David Vitter accepts a container of keys from Lisa Taylor as her husband Robert speaks to a crowd gathered in the Taylor residence's driveway.|