2014-03-21 / Columnists

Official Point Of View

Bipartisanship Will Make Flood Insurance Affordable
By Congressman Gregory W. Meeks

The Rockaway Peninsula has always been and will forever be one of New York City’s crown jewels. From its accessible and pristine beaches, its racial and ethnic diversity, affordable to luxury housing, personable businesses and specialty shops, unique eateries, to its rare natural wonders, like the piping plover, there is something for just about everyone to enjoy. For all there is to like about the peninsula it possesses something else of tremendous value that most of us only began to understand in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. Our peninsula, commonly known as The Gateway to Freedom, serves as a natural barrier against nature’s periodic ravages against New York City and the wider metropolitan region. The Rockaway Peninsula with its stretches of beaches and sand dunes insulates our shorelines, Jamaica Bay, and much that lies beyond heading inland: JFK Airport, South and Southeast Queens,

South Brooklyn, and Lower Manhattan.

Over recent decades, hurricanes, nor’easters, and superstorms had inflicted much greater damage on the peninsula than the casual observer could see. Its coastline had been silently eroded, weakening one of our region’s primary defense perimeters. Then the catastrophic damage Superstorm Sandy inflicted made the danger we face obvious to all.

After surveying what Sandy wrought, my heart, like yours, was broken at the sight of devastating floods. The calamity of corrosive waters, raging fires, and overwhelmed infrastructure and emergency systems were almost more than we could endure. One exhausting evening saw lives and livelihoods lost, billions of dollars of destruction, and dreams shattered. In the weeks and months following Sandy, my spirits were lifted by the way the Rockaways came together. Neighbors became friends. Friends became family. Our courage and humanity redefined what it means to be Rockaway residents.

I was challenged to match the sacrifices of my Rockaway constituents by working as hard as I possibly could with President Obama, the Democrats and Republicans in the New York congressional delegation, colleagues on both sides of the aisle in Congress, New York state government, and New York City officials around the singular task of getting federal support to Superstorm Sandy’s victims. It took 90 days to overcome the deliberate delays engineered by Tea Party Republicans, but our bipartisan coalition - backed by thousands of peninsula residents demanding that Congress “walk in our shoes” – was ultimately successful in getting Congress to pass a $60 billion Sandy relief package for New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

That success contained important lessons that I’m applying to ongoing rebuilding and resiliency challenges such as the unforeseen one that surfaced last year in connection with Congress’ effort to reform the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). In a previous column I noted that extreme weather events had burdened the program with unsustainable debt. Congress passed the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act in 2012 to prevent insolvency.

But last summer, FEMA, which administers NFIP, acting without meeting preconditions Biggert-Waters set, announced that incredible flood insurance rate increases would go into effect on October 1st, 2013. I was determined to help constituents on the peninsula and countless other homeowners and businesses across the nation for whom excessive rate increases could mean financial ruin.

A repeat of last year’s delay in Sandy aid had to be avoided. It was necessary to be pragmatic and principled, flexible as well as firm while teaming with a Republican colleague who represented substantial numbers of constituents facing the same challenge. And since the Republicans control the House of Representatives, joining with a Republican to co-sponsor a reform bill opened the way for Congress to act quickly.

Working in conjunction with my colleagues on the Financial Services Committee, Democrat and Republican, particularly Rep. Michael Grimm who represents severely Sandy-devastated portions of Staten Island, I helped piece together the Flood Insurance Affordability Act. We were able to keep negotiations focused on solving the problem at hand that jeopardized Democratic and Republican homeowners alike. We avoided partisan rancor and built an overwhelming broad consensus around a bill that provides real relief, including:

Permanently removing the home sale rate increase trigger.

Providing relief for those who have already paid higher increases by retroactively repealing rate increases. (I personally drafted the language of this provision and insisted that it be included in the final bill.)

Lowering the cap on the average annual rate increases to 15 percent.

Requiring FEMA to propose a draft regulatory framework to address any affordability issues; offer monthly installment payments for premiums; report to Congress on the impacts of rate increases on small businesses, nonprofit entities, houses of worship and residences.

Requiring the FEMAAdministrator to certify that the agency has implemented a flood mapping approach utilizing sound scientific and engineering methodologies; notify and justify to communities that the mapping model it plans to use to create new flood maps are appropriate.

Establishes a Flood Insurance Advocate within FEMA to answer current and prospective policyholder questions about the flood mapping process and flood insurance rates.

The Flood Insurance Affordability Act passed the House 306 to 91; the Senate 72 to 22; and was expected to be signed into law by President Obama within days.

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