Facing $24 billion in debt due to claims from Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and other events, and complaints about premium increases from homeowners, Congress is struggling once again with the flood insurance program of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Congress enacted the Biggert-Waters Act, part of the MAP-21 Act in 2012 to stem the losses the U.S. government experienced after Hurricane Katrina. The new law contained a series of reforms to the FEMA flood mapping program, including several provisions recommended by MAPPS.
A bill to delay implementation of numerous non-mapping provisions of Biggert-Waters, S. 1926, passed the United States Senate on January 30 by a 67-32 vote.
After weeks of maneuvering and deal-making, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 3370, the Homeowners Flood insurance Affordability Act on March 4 by a 306-91 margin. The bill was considered under a “suspension of the rules” that provides limited debate, prevents amendments and requires 2/3 approval for passage. This process is usually reserved for non-controversial legislation.
H.R. 3370 was anything but non-controversial. The text of the bill considered on the House floor was not readily available until shortly before the vote. The House bill goes much further than its Senate counterpart. Some analysts believe the House bill threatens the FEMA Risk Map program, in which dozens of MAPPS member firms are participants as prime and sub contractors.
It repeals Section 207 of Biggert-Waters, which called on FEMA to adjust flood insurance rates to reflect risk in the event of a property being remapped into a higher- or lower-risk zone, or being designated as a flood hazard for the first time. It specified that any increase in the premium would come in annual chunks of 20 percent.
While repealing this section of current law continues the Risk Map process, some observers believe the House bill prevents any changes in rates or insurance premiums.
What the House said is “we're completing a remapping process for essentially no reason,” said Andrew Moylan, outreach director and senior fellow at The R Street Institute, a national conservative and free market think tank. “FEMA can't use the information to change rates.”
“The technical process of remapping will in fact continue, Moylan said. “What won't happen now, however, if the House bill becomes law is FEMA updating its rate maps accordingly.”
The House bill leaves untouched the mapping reform provisions sought in the 2012 bill by MAPPS. This includes re-establishment of the Technical Mapping Advisory Council, and the requirement for an interagency budget crosscut and coordination report on flood risk determination data and geospatial data.
What is jeopardized is FEMA contributions to and partnership with the USGS on its national 3-dimensional elevation (3DEP) program.
Whether the House and Senate will form a conference committee to reconcile differences between the two bills, or the Senate will take up the House bill, is unclear. The bill must still survive further steps in the legislative process before it is presented to the White House for President Obama’s approval. Organizations such as MAPPS and the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS), who are closely monitoring the legislation, will alert its members, and the geospatial community at large, to take action when necessary.