In a meeting with Sen. David Vitter and officials from FEMA and the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), parish officials were told levees currently not recognized under the newly proposed FEMA flood maps will be reevaluated and may be taken into account when calculating future flood insurance premium rates.
The 2012 FEMA flood map proposed earlier this year would significantly lower base flood elevations for large parts of the West Bank. Parts of the parish encompassing around 9,000 homes would also be considered as flood plains for the first time
Combined with the Biggert-Waters Act that disallows grandfathering of homes and would subject property owners to greatly increased flood insurance rates, the changes have the potential to greatly devalue property. St. Charles Parish Assessor Tab Troxler already said his office has noticed a huge drop off in the local real estate market. If the market does not pick up before late July, Troxler may reassess many of the homes in those areas at 60 percent less than their current value.
The issue at point is locally constructed flood protection barriers, most notably the Sunset Drainage District levee in Des Allemands. The Sunset Drainage levee in particular would not be recognized in the new maps for the first time because it does not meet federal standards and is not accredited by the Corps of Engineers.
St. Charles Parish spokeswoman Renee Simpson said FEMA will be reevaluating their decision to not recognize non-accredited levees.
"It would be FEMA looking at the flood controls in place. They decided because it wasn’t 100 year flood protection, it wasn’t included in the map and now they are basically looking at the map," she said.
Earl Matherne, St. Charles Parish’s coastal zone manager, said NFIP and FEMA’s willingness to consider recognizing existing structures is a positive step.
"That was our best hope. That is what it is made for – to look at levees that weren’t built under Corps standards, but are still there. They obviously do something," he said.
Buddy Boe, St. Charles Parish’s chief administrative officer, said in addition to manmade structures FEMA will also reevaluate naturally occurring land masses and what effect they will have in the case of flooding.
"All elements of a natural landscape and a manmade landscape are taken into account to the degree that they decrease flooding. They are not going to stop it, but they will decrease the amount of flooding in certain areas," he said.
In the post Biggert-Waters flood insurance arena, even a slight raise in a base flood elevation could mean relief for homeowners.
"Every foot below the BFE you are is several thousands of dollars," Boe said. "Reducing that base flood elevation by two to three feet could mean a large savings," Boe said. "Now every inch, every half inch matters completely on whether the community is a ghost town in a few years."
The problem with the current map, according to Boe, is that FEMA did not take into account all elements of the topography when they configured it and instead made a simple calculation of whether communities were protected by Corps of Engineers accredited levees or not.
"They used technology, but didn’t go all the way. They made a standard that if it doesn’t meet it, it doesn’t exist. What they didn’t do was take it to the next level and look at all the data," he said.
While the reevaluation of the proposed flood map is promising, the parish is still a long way from solving all of the area’s problems when it comes to potential flood insurance rate hikes.
"It is definitely a positive step, but it is a multifaceted problem and it is going to take many steps to solve including the West Bank Hurricane Protection Project, the FEMA remapping process and the repeal of Biggert-Waters," Boe said.
Boe said it is also encouraging that other parts of the nation are going to be affected by FEMA’s decision to not recognize locally built structures.
"Upriver, where they have ring levees around communities, they are having similar problems. For instance, a community that is fine with having their fields flooded, but built their own structure around their town that has significantly protected it for 50 years and never flooded," he said.
Parish leaders believe they will be able to garner widespread support in their efforts because so many communities would be affected throughout the country.
"The good thing is that this issue is from sea to shining sea and affects red and blue states and red and blue delegations," Boe said. "We are on our way to raising this issue to where it needs to be to get national support."