The U.S. Senate passed legislation last Thursday that would relieve the flood rate hikes mandated by a 2012 law aimed at stabilizing the finances of the National Flood Insurance Program.
By a vote of 67-32, the Senate approved the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act, which if made into law would delay the increases in the flood insurance rates mandate under the Biggert-Waters Act of 2012, until the Federal Emergency Management Agency does an affordability study to determine how the rate hikes would affect homeowners in food zones. It also would require FEMA to certify that its flood maps are accurate and ensure local levees and other flood control structures are taken into account in the mapping process.
Other provisions include reimbursement to qualifying homeowners for successful map appeals and the establishment of a flood insurance advocate within FEMA to aid and assist policyholders.
The Biggert-Waters Act was passed just a few months before Hurricane Sandy — as an attachment to a bill to fund the U.S. Department of Transportation, something typically done with controversial bills — to control the dire financial situation in the federal flood insurance program. It had been paying out more money than it was taking in from premiums in recent years, specifically in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which left much of the city of New Orleans and the low-lying coastlines of Louisiana and Mississippi underwater.
The bill passed last Thursday includes an amendment sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) that would require FEMA to come up with alternative flood mitigation means for buildings such as brownstones, brick structures and multifamily buildings that cannot be raised as FEMA suggests homeowners in flood zones do. That includes many buildings in the Rockaways, Lindenwood and in Coleman Square in Howard Beach that were hit by Sandy and are in severe flood zones.
Flood insurance premiums for millions of residents around the country living in flood zones, including places like the Rockaways, Broad Channel, Howard Beach and Long Island City, skyrocketed by over 1,000 percent in some cases because the Biggert-Waters Act removed subsidies given to homeowners to spur shorefront development.
The rate increases, which technically took effect last October, were the subject of a massive nationwide campaign last summer that included town hall meetings calling on Congress to roll back the hikes. One such demonstration took place at the Broad Channel VFW and brought out nearly 1,000 people. Residents say that besides hitting their pocketbooks hard, the rate increases have caused property values to plummet.
Critics of the new bill say rolling back the Biggert-Waters Act would return the National Flood Insurance Program to a state of insolvency and force taxpayers to make up the difference to pay out claims to flood victims. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said the Republican-controlled House of Representatives wouldn’t take up the bill. In the Senate, though several Republican senators from coastal states voted for the bill, all but one of the 32 votes against were cast by Republicans.
Dan Mundy Jr., a Broad Channel resident who helped organize the rally, said the Senate vote made him optimistic the bill would pass the House
“We’re hopeful,” he said. “What we’re looking at that’s encouraging is the bipartisan and majority support in the Senate.”
He noted how some senators, such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), came around to support the bill after initial opposition because of intense lobbying efforts from residents in coastal communities.
“We think once these members of Congress see the effect the rate hikes will have on homeowners and these communities, they will come around,” Mundy said. “Initial indications are that there are good reasons to be hopeful.”
Some House Republicans have already come out in support of the Senate plan or something similar. Rep. Michael Grimm (R-Staten Island), the only member of the majority party from New York City, is currently working with Biggert-Waters’ co-sponsor Rep. Maxine Waters (D-California) on a compromise plan designed to pass both houses and get signed into law by President Obama. Waters has disavowed her support for the bill that carries her name, saying it had “unintended consequences.”
Rep. Greg Meeks (D-Jamaica), who represents the entire Rockaway Peninsula, spoke on the floor of the House Tuesday urging the body to take up the Senate bill.
“It is time we hear the voices of hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens who have been devastated by the botched implementation of the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Act that led to dramatic increases in the cost of flood insurance,” he said. “It is time that we on this side of the Capitol take up this legislation and address this problem before one more family suffers from increased premiums, depressed home prices or the inability to sell their home.”