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Aerial of severe flooding in the Watson area in Livingston Parish on Sunday August 14, 2016.

Five years ago, Livingston Parish officials broke FEMA rules when recovering from the 2016 floods, mistakes that jacked up flood insurance rates for everyone in the parish.

Now, in an effort to cut those rates by 5%, the government is asking 1,221 homeowners to elevate or take a buyout.

The request is accompanied by a stick — if the homeowners do nothing, they won’t be given permits for renovations they might want to do.

A May 2019 FEMA audit faulted the way the parish assessed damaged homes after the historic flood and threatened to claw back millions of dollars in federal aid.

The audit found the parish broke its own rules on determining which homes in the lowest areas were "substantially damaged."

The parish allowed these lower homes, which have higher levels of flood damage, to be repaired without first having their damage assessed and flood risk lessened through home elevation or other steps. Those steps are required to limit future costs to the taxpayer-subsidized flood insurance program, FEMA officials said this week.

"This lack of enforcement is considered a violation and must be remedied for the community to remain in good standing with the (National Flood Insurance Program)," FEMA officials said in a statement.

Livingston officials say they are trying to get back into compliance with the flood insurance program, which would restore a 5% break on flood insurance rates for policy holders.

At the end of 2020, about 31% of Livingston Parish homeowners had flood insurance, or 18,205 policyholders, the state Department of Insurance says.

The parish has scheduled a meeting for 4 p.m. Monday, May 3 at the Livingston Parish Council Chambers, 20355 Government Boulevard in Livingston. Officials will explain the letter to those who received it, their options, and potential financial assistance.

Brandi Janes, director of Livingston homeland security, said the parish has already taken other measures to answer the audit's findings, including revamping damage assessment procedures, implementing higher flood elevation standards and beginning a listing of low-lying homes.

"All those things have been done," she said. "It's a last process having to send out those letters. Now we've got to allow some time for everybody to go through the appeals process." 

Homeowners have the right to appeal the damage assessment that triggers the letter.

In the short term, Livingston homeowners who received a letter should sign up for a parish waiting list to receive funding to protect their homes against a future flood, primarily through elevation or buyouts.

Janes said those who don't at least sign up for the waiting list won't be able to receive parish permits should they want to do major work, renovations or additions on their primary residence.

"We cannot give a permit until they either complete the mitigation or show intent to mitigate," she explained.

That intention can be signified by signing up for the waiting list or taking other steps to do the work.

Janes said she expects most homeowners will chose home elevation because they won't want to sell their homes. But it can take one to two years for FEMA to authorize grant funding for a home elevation, which covers 75% to 100% of the total cost. 

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The letters won't affect homeowners' ability to continue to have flood insurance in the interim, Janes said. 

FEMA officials warned that Livingston's return to compliance with the NFIP and then to become a part of its Community Rating System, which could lead to the insurance rate reductions again, could take a while.

"The current (audit), which addresses topics mostly related to substantial damage, has just started an important phase, which will likely need months if not years to complete," FEMA officials said. 

For one, the parish will have to undergo another audit after it wraps up the current one and then apply to be a part of the Community Rating System again, a federal insurance rubric.

In 2019, a separate FEMA audit had faulted the parish over new construction permits in low-lying areas after the '16 flood, leading the agency to kick the parish out the rating system. 

The other FEMA audit that had flagged the houses -- it was what's known as a Community Assistance Visit -- had originally found 3,801 homes in violation of substantial damage rules, but parish and FEMA officials analyzed the data, physically assessed homes and winnowed the list down to 1,221, Janes said.

Some have already been restored since the flood. Others are in the process of being restored or have been sold, she said. Some are abandoned.

In addition to being deemed "substantially damaged," homes that received the letters also were in the highest-risk flood insurance zones and also sat at an elevation that was below the estimated height of water in a 100-year flood, or what's known as the base flood elevation.  

The 100-year flood is one that has a 1% chance of happening in any year. That statistical estimate of flood water height is considered a benchmark in the flood insurance realm and engineering circles.

Homes with mortgages that are built below the base flood elevation must have flood insurance. A 100-year flood event has a 26% chance of occurring in the lifetime of a 30-year mortgage.

As part of Livingston's response to the audit, the parish previously raised its new home elevation standards from the base flood elevation — the minimum — to the FEMA preferred level of 1 foot above the base flood.

Homes affected by the new letters would have to raise their homes at least to that level, Janes said.

In the months after the 2016 flood, damage determinations were a point of major public concern for the tens of thousands of homeowners and local leaders.

The determinations were the focus of sometimes emotional appeals by homeowners, as they feared "substantial damage" would force them to do a costly elevation or even demolish their home.

Some parishes, like East Baton Rouge and Ascension, reacted by easing some of their rules on substantial damage and elevation, which were higher than FEMA minimums, to lessen the potential for forced home elevations and buyouts. In Ascension, officials also faced complaints about the determinations, the appeals of those findings and the time it was taking to have them done.

A few years later, Ascension performed well on its FEMA audit, providing documentation of damage assessments, and remains in the Community Rating System with rate reductions for homeowners, parish officials said.

In Livingston, parish officials did some damage assessments, but not completely, as parish officials said they were focused on getting people back in their homes.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.