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Landrieu Revamps Flood Insurance Amendment, Clearing Path for Water Bill

Louisiana Democrat Mary L. Landrieu has revamped her amendment to freeze flood insurance rates for five years, removing the biggest obstacle to final Senate action this week on legislation to authorize federal projects for flood control, navigation and environmental restoration.

Progress on the water resources bill screeched to a halt last week, when Landrieu held up amendment votes until leaders agreed to consider her proposal to stop an increase in flood insurance premiums until the Federal Emergency Management Agency has studied their affordability.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., moved to limit debate on the bill (S 601) in an attempt to prod negotiations on Landrieu’s proposal. The cloture vote would be held at noon May 14 if senators cannot agree to consider Landrieu’s amendment.

It looks as though the cloture vote will be unnecessary. Landrieu rewrote the amendment to avoid adding to the overall cost of the bill, once it became clear that an amendment that did so would complicate passage, according to an aide to the senator. The amendment was filed Thursday.

“We didn’t want to hurt the bill,” the aide said.

Landrieu has been concerned that a flood insurance overhaul (PL 112-141) signed into law last year will sharply increase the premiums paid by homeowners. Lawmakers from the Gulf Coast, which is still reeling from the double whammy of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, have been joined in fighting the higher flood insurance premiums by those from mid-Atlantic states hit last year by Hurricane Sandy.

“New Jersey families already suffered from a natural disaster,” Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said last week. “The next disaster shouldn’t be a man-made one.”

The flood insurance program drastically raised rates in January for homes in low-lying areas at high risk of flooding.

In some cases, homeowners along storm-battered coasts in New York and New Jersey were facing premiums of more than $500 per month for coverage that tops out at $250,000 per home plus $100,000 for the contents, which is often less than the property’s value.

Landrieu said in a letter to FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate in March that the planned phase-in of these higher premiums will raise the cost to many homeowners by 20 to 25 percent over each of the next four or five years. The premium increases are driven by a spike in claims stemming from the extreme-weather events of recent years.

“I have been warning about these increases for some time,” Landrieu said. “We don’t have time to wait; we need to stop these rate increases now. Families and businesses in Louisiana are already paying exorbitant rates for flood insurance, and some could see those rates go up dramatically under these proposals. My amendment will stop these increases until FEMA conducts an affordability study and Congress can act on the results. I agree that the National Flood Insurance Program needs to be self-sustaining, but this is not the right way.”

Landrieu has been joined in her efforts to rein in the premium increases by fellow Louisianan David Vitter, the ranking Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee and the water bill’s co-sponsor. The support by lawmakers from New York and New Jersey has given Landrieu additional leverage in pushing her campaign.

The amendment also would benefit interior states along major river systems, such as those bordering the Mississippi River, an aide to Landrieu said, because of new flood maps that the insurance program’s administrators are using.

With the issue of the amendment’s cost now resolved, the water bill appears to be back on track for passage by midweek, although senators still have until 4 p.m. on May 13 to file amendments.

The bill would authorize Army Corps of Engineers projects, including harbor dredging and protecting waterways from storm damage. It also would create a national levee safety program and a financing pilot program to provide loans and loan guarantees for flood control, water supply and wastewater projects.

Under a compromise that senators reached last week, funding for dredging and other port improvements would increase by $100 million annually for six years. After that, all the revenue raised annually through a user fee levied on domestic and imported shipping would be dedicated to the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. That revenue now totals about $1.6 billion a year.

Sarah Chacko contributed to this report.

Corrects the timing to say that the amendment was filed Thursday.

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