FROM: Congress should renew flood insurance and then fix it | Editorial  

By Times-Picayune Editorial Board 

A FEMA postcard arrived in New Orleans this week with a timely reminder: "You can't control the weather, but you can prepare for it. Renew your flood insurance policy today."

It isn't only policyholders who need to renew. Congress has only a day left to reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program before its July 31 expiration date. The House voted 366-52 Wednesday, July 25th to extend the program to Nov. 30, which is the last day of hurricane season.

A longer extension would have been ideal, but it is vital to get homeowners and business owners through storm season with the program intact. People shouldn't have to watch the Gulf of Mexico and worry about whether their home is protected from storm surge. They also shouldn't have to worry about whether they'll be able to get the insurance required to buy a house.

 We can't play some game of chicken with the lives of millions of families," Jefferson Rep. Steve Scalise, the House majority whip, told his colleagues Wednesday. Despite pressure from Texas Republican Rep. Jeb Hensarling and other anti-flood insurance forces, Rep. Scalise won the vote.

The bill reauthorizing flood insurance now is in the Senate, which must act quickly. Senators need to remember the families Rep. Scalise mentioned. There are 5 million policyholders who depend on the program for protection from floods.

Once the temporary extension is done, Rep. Scalise's hope is to bring together a group of House and Senate members in September to try to hammer out a long-term extension, he said in a phone interview Thursday. Congress will have four months to agree on a way to reform the NFIP and end these short-term reprieves.

A reform package must keep policies affordable, encourage private insurers to offer coverage, improve mapping and mitigation programs and be fair to taxpayers, Rep. Scalise said. It also must include a grandfather provision to protect existing policyholders who have followed FEMA's rules, he said.

A five-year extension ought to be a minimum.

The House passed a five-year reauthorization last year that included reforms. But the Senate hasn't had a vote on anything like that. Louisiana Sens. Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy are each working on bipartisan bills to improve the flood insurance program and reauthorize it for six to 10 years.

The July 31 expiration date was set when Congress approved a four-month extension in March. That followed several other brief extensions.

The National Association of Realtors, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and 20 other trade and business groups signed on to a July 13 letter urging Congress to give consumers a long-term extension of the flood insurance program. They pointed out that 20,000 communities across the United States depend on the program.

Rep. Scalise emphasized that point in a news release after the vote Wednesday: "Flooding is not just an issue that affects a handful of states. Families and small businesses in all 50 states have NFIP policies and are at risk for flooding because of one simple fact: wherever there is rain, or a river, stream or other body of water, there is potential for a flood. Whether land-locked or coastal, flooding can impact anyone."

Some members of Congress don't seem to understand that. They claim that the program is filled with $1 million beach houses. That isn't true.

Almost all -- 98.5 percent -- of NFIP policies are in parishes or counties with a median household income below $100,000, according to GNO Inc. And 62 percent of policies are in parishes or counties with a median household income below the national average of $53,889.

The NFIP was created after private insurers backed out of the marketplace after Hurricane Betsy in 1965. Reform proposals are pending that would encourage more private companies to offer flood coverage. But at this point, there is no other viable option for flood insurance for millions of people who need it.

Congress shouldn't make people worry every few months about whether they will still be able to get flood coverage.

The House did its part to keep the program going. Now, the Senate should do the same.