Steep rate increases for flood insurance are hitting homeowners and businesses across south Louisiana, and state officials and business leaders warn the increases could severely damage local economies.
Despite the calls for alarm, Gov. Bobby Jindal has largely stayed quiet on an issue that is one of the biggest worries in his home state.
While he’s called the concern a top priority for his administration, the governor has left carrying on the fight to his chief coastal adviser, Garret Graves.
That’s not the same as when a governor personally champions an issue that has both local and national implications.
Jindal’s made no appearances on national TV news shows to talk about flood insurance and written no guest editorials for newspapers around the country, like he’s done on other matters, some of which have no bearing on Louisiana.
The Republican governor’s absence is noticeable as parish presidents, local business organizations and state lawmakers have talked of the need to try to exert pressure in Washington for an intervention in the federally-run program.
“This is affecting people’s lives. We have people who are afraid they’re going to lose their homes,” Rep. Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette, said at a House and Senate insurance hearing.
The rates charged through the National Flood Insurance Program are rising around the country as part of a bipartisan overhaul passed by Congress last year to cut the federal government’s costs. Members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation are seeking to keep lower rates in place, but the effort hasn’t gained enough support yet for final passage.
About 480,000 Louisiana homes and businesses have federal flood insurance.
But concerns about flood insurance didn’t even make Jindal’s top-four list when he outlined issues he wanted President Barack Obama to consider when visiting Louisiana earlier this month.
The dramatic rise in insurance rates instead was trumped by Jindal’s focus on the Keystone XL pipeline, new federal limits on coal-fired plants and an Obama administration lawsuit against Louisiana’s school tuition voucher program.
Flood insurance was second on a list that Stephen Waguespack, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and a former top Jindal administration official, assembled of his suggestions for Obama. He urged the president to demand that FEMA and Congress stop the rate increases.
“This will hit our small businesses, lenders and individual homeowners bluntly unless Congress and the administration step in to stop it,” Waguespack wrote in his weekly column. He called it “an economic calamity for Louisiana if left unaddressed.”
Jindal said he believes the flood insurance matter can only be handled by Congress, and said he supports efforts in Congress to stop the rate increases.
Limitations of jurisdiction have rarely stopped Jindal – who recently opined about U.S. relations with Iran – from highlighting an issue he deems important.
But then, flood insurance isn’t necessarily a subject that would boost Jindal’s conservative credentials on his way to a possible 2016 presidential campaign. In fact, loudly suggesting Louisiana needs rate relief could put him at odds with budget-cutting groups.
Until changes were enacted by Congress, the flood insurance program subsidized rates for people who lived in areas without flood maps or who built their homes and then saw the maps and their risk levels changed.
The program overhaul stripped the subsidy provisions starting in October. Homeowners and businesses are receiving notifications that their insurance bills are going up, in some instances by thousands of dollars.
Supporters of the change say the federal government can’t afford to subsidize insurance for people who live in areas vulnerable to flooding, citing billions of dollars in payouts after Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy.
Louisiana officials said flood maps drawn up by FEMA don’t recognize local levees or other flood mitigation efforts such as pumps that could lower a community’s flooding risk.
“We want the program to be sustainable. We think that’s right, but we don’t think that this is the right way to make it sustainable, on the backs of these homeowners and other taxpayers who have done nothing wrong,” Jindal said.
Maybe he should try telling that to people in Washington who could rework the program.