In response to the firestorm, an unusual House coalition of Democrats and GOP conservatives teamed up on a 281-146 vote last month to delay some of the premium increases for a year. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., would block FEMA from implementing a provision of the law that phases out below-market, grandfathered premiums for homeowners whose flood risks are deemed higher under new maps, but it leaves in effect FEMA efforts to phase out direct subsidies of people living in flood zones.
Cassidy's amendment was added to the spending bill that funds FEMA's budget. Despite opposition from conservative groups like Heritage Action, many prominent conservatives voted for the amendment, including Reps. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Steve Scalise, R-La., chairman of the Republican Study Committee.
Cassidy is running to unseat Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, who, for her part, is aiming for broader legislation in the Senate from her perch atop the Appropriations subcommittee that writes FEMA's budget. She hasn't revealed her plans.
"What I'm talking about are the fishermen, the dock workers, the middle-class families that have lived on this coast and river for 300 years. And we're literally pricing them out from a piece of geography that President Jefferson leveraged the entire federal Treasury to buy," Landrieu, D-La., said. "On the heels of this recession, it's just terribly cruel and harsh. And on the heels of the BP oil spill. And on the heels of Katrina and Rita, how much more can we take?"
Supporters of the changes roll their eyes. They say the law is, for the most part, being implemented as designed and that it's just that people are upset by the higher insurance rates they are having to pay.
"This program was designed to bring some sanity to this flood program," Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., said during debate on delaying the new premiums. "These are the exact intended consequences ... that we would simply charge folks who are in risky areas more."
But FEMA's critics say the agency is botching implementation of the law, for instance, failing to take into account nonfederal levees and flood mitigation factors like coastal restoration and pumping equipment when looking at flood risks.
David Miller, the FEMA official in charge of the program, acknowledges the agency has ignored nonfederal levees in determining flood risk but is rethinking the policy. "We've put all mapping of levees on hold until the new policy goes into effect" in a few weeks.
A bigger impact could be felt by people whose homes met previous building standards or were deemed at lower risk under previous flood maps but will face higher premiums soon. Under the old system, they could retain their old rates, since they followed the rules at the time they bought or built their home. The new law will phase out such grandfathered rates, starting late next year.
Lawmakers say this grandfathering change is the source of nightmare stories of homeowners who presently pay a few hundred dollars annually for their policy but face many-fold increases now. FEMA can't tell policymakers how many people even benefit from grandfathered rates, much less predict how remapping will affect them.
For Louisiana homeowner Taylor, the possible effects are daunting — unless FEMA issues a reprieve by redrawing its new flood map.
"The worst part is my home was worth $230,000 this Jan. 1," Taylor said. "As of right now, my tax assessor tells me because of this flood insurance issue my home is worth $35,000, basically the lot."