Flood insurance rates will not be affected by a presidential order that requires federal agencies to take sea-level rise into account when building or funding projects, a Federal Emergency Management Agency official said Friday.
While the order, issued earlier this year, could increase the cost of some federal projects as well as construction built with funds from various programs — including the Community Development Block Grant program — rates and homeownership financing from the government will not be affected, FEMA Deputy Associate Administrator for Mitigation Roy Wright told a town hall meeting at the University of New Orleans.
“It will not change the national flood insurance program in terms of how it maps” flood risk, Wright said.
Wright’s comments came during a field hearing held by Sens. David Vitter and Bill Cassidy, both Louisiana Republicans.
The executive order has been a major source of concern for members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation, with some expressing fear that it means homes and businesses will have to comply with stricter standards or see their flood insurance rates increased.
Even after Wright’s comments, Vitter remained skeptical.
“If that is the absolute commitment, it can certainly be stated in a much more precise way, including in an actual executive order, not just agency guidelines,” Vitter said.
There are a variety of methods that agencies can use to comply with the order, such as building several feet higher than the base flood elevation to provide additional protection should future flooding be more severe than anticipated.
“If there are federal dollars put in, we should build it back higher and stronger,” Wright said.
Concerns also have been raised about how the order would affect construction projects, potentially increasing the cost of highways or government buildings paid for with federal funds. Friday’s hearing focused specifically on the impact it would have on flood insurance rates.
Because the National Flood Insurance Program is run by FEMA, Vitter and Cassidy worried that the order would jack up the requirements — and rates — for homeowners and businesses.
The issue also has come up in congressional debate and spurred comments from Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, on Thursday that she was “shocked” the government planned to rebuild the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans after it flooded during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. While Kaptur’s comments blamed the storm, implying the area would just be flooded again in a future storm, the flooding actually was caused by engineering failures in the protection system built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The system has since received a $14.5 billion upgrade.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu issued a statement calling Kaptur’s comments “misguided and offensive.”
Other issues were raised at the hearing. Cassidy said one of his staffers was nearly charged $250 in fees for flood insurance on his home, rather than the $25 he should have been charged for his primary residence. That raised questions about how people could prove they live in the building they are insuring if they have just moved and have nothing to prove their address, Cassidy said.
The need for the executive order — and apparently the idea of taking climate change into account — also came under fire from the senators. While reading out part of the order, Vitter stopped after coming to the phrase “climate-informed science” before offering as an aside, “whatever that means.”
As for the flood insurance program itself, a panel of speakers from local business groups and levee districts praised a law passed last year that headed off massive rate increases. But they also pushed for Congress to go further and allow properties to maintain their same insurance rates as long as they have continuous coverage, even if the property is sold to a new owner.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.