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FEMA announces program analyzing non-federal levees after criticism from Vitter, parish presidents
Jul 23, 2013

Five parishes that rely on their locally built levees for flood protection will participate in a FEMA pilot program aimed at setting new rules for determining risk in areas with non-federal systems. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which does not recognize any protection offered by non-federal levees, rolled out the program Friday, days after U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., demanded that it rescind preliminary flood maps in Jefferson, Orleans and St. Bernard parishes.

Vitter said those maps contained errors and failed to incorporate local flood protection measures. None of those parishes, however, are part of the FEMA pilot program, which instead covers Plaquemines, Lafourche, Terrebonne, St. Tammany and St. Charles.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., hailed the pilot program. "These communities have made significant investments to protect themselves, but currently aren't getting any credit from FEMA,'' Landrieu said. "For too long FEMA has failed to recognize the reality on the ground along the coast. The new guidelines for these parishes are an important opportunity to improve FEMA's understanding of coastal Louisiana's unique topography and conditions.''

FEMA officials said the process allows non-federal levee systems to be analyzed in sections. "The new procedures will provide a more realistic depiction of flood risks in the vicinity of the nation's levee systems,'' the agency said in a news release.

The announcement came after Vitter wrote urging FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate to retract the "flawed preliminary maps immediately.'' The Jefferson, Orleans and St. Bernard maps not only contain errors, Vitter said, but their release excludes work such as non-accredited levees and pump stations that were promised to be part of the formula creating preliminary maps.

David Miller, associate administrator of the Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration, "committed to us that no further preliminary maps would be issued until FEMA ... determines an accurate way to credit all flood control features,'' Vitter wrote. "He committed to this because doing otherwise would lead to publishing incomplete maps with inaccurate information, leading to misleading estimates about future flood insurance rates and possibly improper rates.''

For too long FEMA has failed to recognize the reality on the ground along the coast." -- Sen. Mary Landrieu.

Parish presidents joined Vitter in his call Friday. Some said preliminary maps would further heighten anxieties for residents concerned that changes in the National Flood Insurance Program could force them out of their homes.

The Biggert-Waters Act passed by Congress in 2012 was designed to provide financial stability to the flood insurance program. But southeast Louisiana officials say it could impose catastrophic premiums of as much at $20,000 annually. Local officials have complained that FEMA flood maps, which determine insurance premiums, fail to account for local flood protection work, including non-federal levees.

"As one of the first communities in the country to receive the new maps under the dark cloud of the Biggert-Waters Act's unreasonable flood insurance premiums, I can attest to both the emotional and economic damages FEMA's actions have had on St. Charles Parish already,'' Parish President V.J. St. Pierre Jr. said. "This problem is of national concern as FEMA continues to release flawed flood maps and outrageous insurance premiums to neighborhoods throughout America.''

A FEMA spokesman said local governments may raise their concerns during the process of appealing the preliminary maps. "The beginning of the appeals period allows communities the opportunity to provide formal feedback on preliminary flood insurance maps, including any disputes regarding the data within these maps,'' the spokesman said in an email. "FEMA has received the letter from Senator Vitter. We are in close contact with Senator Vitter's office and local parish officials about this process."

A Landrieu aide agreed, stressing that the preliminary maps are non-binding and the appeals process is just starting.

Vitter took a more combative stance. He said he and south Louisiana parish presidents were assured at a May 9 meeting in Washington with Miller that no maps would be issued until all flood control features were included. Vitter spokesman Luke Bolar said the senator learned of the new preliminary maps from a television news report.

Vitter also chastised FEMA for incorrect information in the maps, citing as an example the wrong number of pump stations and an underestimate of pumping capacity in Jefferson Parish. "What we want right now is for them to rescind the maps until they get it right,'' Bolar said.

While many residents stand to benefit from the new maps reflecting gains in flood protection, Jefferson Parish President John Young said inaccurate maps produced from erroneous information will hurt others and force the parish to appeal obviously wrong information. "There shouldn't be inaccuracies that will penalize other people,'' Young said. "That comes from having a robust dialogue, not something being dictated by FEMA and the appeals process. That's what was promised by Mr. Miller.''

Vitter implored Fugate to correct the maps, emphasizing residents will have to "bear the cost of your mistakes for years to come.''

"This is truly outrageous,'' Vitter wrote. "Earlier this year, FEMA caused panic in many parishes in south Louisiana by predicting future flood insurance rates based on incomplete and inaccurate maps. FEMA has yet to finalize its procedures to accurately credit all flood control features. So you are repeating that same irresponsible mistake with the release of these maps.''