Durbin seeks delay in mandatory flood insurance for metro-east

Belleville News-Democrat
September 11, 2010
By Mike Fitzgerald

Metro-east leaders are cheering an effort by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Springfield, to delay by five years the mandatory flood insurance purchase requirement in places with newly designated flood maps nationwide.

Durbin, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, on Friday asked the Senate Banking Committee to include the five-year delay provision in a bill to reauthorize the federal flood insurance program.

The five-year delay contained in the Durbin provision mirrors a key part of a bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, which has passed out of the House but has so far stalled in the Senate.

"I am happy the senator is taking this step," said Patrick McKeehan, executive director of Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois.

"We've been struggling with this for three years," McKeehan said. "Our patience is very short on this issue."

Indeed, impatience was the tone of a meeting that McKeehan presided over Wednesday to announce the launch of a coalition of business and local government units called the St. Louis Metro East Levee Issues Alliance.

One of the coalition's top goals is to get a bill calling for the five-year delay of the mandatory insurance requirement passed through Congress and then signed by President Barack Obama.

St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern applauded Durbin's move, predicting that Durbin's action "is timely enough to make a difference for us. That's the purpose, to give us time to repair the levees."

Southwestern Illinois business and government leaders have warned that if such a delay on mandatory insurance purchases is not approved, then economic calamity could befall the region.

That's because up to 150,000 property owners in the American Bottoms area could be forced to pay drastically higher flood insurance premiums. Many residents would be forced to move out, while business development in the flood plain would freeze, they warn.

In a letter to the banking panel, Durbin wrote that the five-year delay "should only be made available to state and local governments that have flood plans in place and provide flood-risk and flood-crisis information to residents."

Three years ago, the Federal Emergency Management Agency provoked an outcry when it announced it planned to implement new, much broader flood-hazard maps for Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties.

What upset many people was the fact that the new FEMA maps were based on the assumption that the metro-east's networks of levees were functionally useless, even though those levees had never been breached in 70 years.

Local governments nationwide are facing the same problems after FEMA revoked the accreditation of hundreds of flood levees.

Since 2008, FEMA has decertified at least 300 levees on new maps that cover nearly two-thirds of the U.S. population, according to a story Friday in USA Today.

In response to FEMA's remapping plans, Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties passed sales taxes to pay for levee repairs; collectively they are pulling in $10 million a year.

In addition, those counties also formed the Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District Council, which is overseeing repairs to the levee districts.

Nonetheless, FEMA is still adamant about implementing the new flood maps by early 2011, despite the warnings of economic disaster coming from metro-east leaders.

Les Sterman, the council's chief engineer, said FEMA ought to recognize what the council is trying to do.

"If the objective is to make levees safer, we're doing that, unlike some areas around the country," Sterman said. "And we ought to be rewarded for that, not penalized."

Metro-east residents would be paying at least $50 million in flood insurance premiums to FEMA if the new maps take effect without a congressionally-mandated delay.

"The thing that impresses me is that not a dime of these flood insurance payments would go to fixing any of these levees," Sterman said. "And if that's our objective, then we ought to put our money into that, and not into insurance."