Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who covers criminal justice, terrorism and the courts for WNYC. She found her way into public radio after practicing law for five years, and can definitely say that walking the streets of New York City with a microphone is a lot more fun than being holed up in the office writing letters to opposing counsel.
The House is expected to vote as early as next week to partially repeal a 2012 law that overhauled the National Flood Insurance Program, which is tens of billions of dollars in debt.
The law was meant to make people living in flood-prone areas foot more of the insurance bill. But lawmakers didn't realize how many homeowners would be affected — or how hard they'd be hit.
You can find some of those homeowners in Bayou Gauche, about 30 miles west of New Orleans.
Like other parts of South Louisiana, this small community is below sea level. Pumping stations — as well as 6-foot levees — keep the land here dry during storms. But the levees are nowhere to be found on the most recent flood map proposed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
FEMA decided it will no longer recognize levees that aren't certified by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, so now Bayou Gauche shows up as a high-risk flood zone. Resident Gordon Matherne says that's ridiculous.
"The levees have been here for about 60 years, and we've never had a flood since the levees were built," says Matherne, 64, whose house is a five-minute drive from the levees.
Being deemed a higher risk as a flood zone has some financial consequences under the federal law passed in 2012: It has made flood insurance rates skyrocket for many longtime homeowners.
Living 'Check To Check'
The idea behind the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act was to shift the financial risk of insuring flood-zone properties from the government to homeowners. What lawmakers didn't foresee at the time was that new FEMA flood maps would bring staggering premium hikes for many of the 5.5 million people covered by the National Flood Insurance Program.
"We live check to check. And if you walk around this neighborhood, you'll find that most of the people around here live check to check," says Ward Aucoin, another resident of Bayou Gauche.
Right now, Aucoin is paying $370 per year for flood insurance. But in a few years, under Biggert-Waters, he's supposed to pay more than $17,000 annually.
"You know, a meteor could hit my house, but I don't go spend $20,000 for just in case it hits my house," says Aucoin. "No one's flooding around here, so it's kind of hard for me to justify — and everybody to justify — $18,000, or whatever it's gonna be, for something that's never happened that may happen."
Because Aucoin still has a mortgage on his red-brick, ranch-style home, he's required to purchase flood insurance. And he says he can't move away because he's tethered to the petrochemical industry that's based here. Those companies need to be near water to transport their products up and down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico.
Most of Aucoin's neighborhood is in the same boat.
"Neighbor across the street works at a local chemical plant. This one just retired from a chemical plant," says Aucoin, pointing to various houses down his street. "That's my brother next door, works at a chemical plant. I work at a chemical plant."
An Environmental Concern
Stories like Aucoin's have been flooding into congressional offices, so now lawmakers are trying to delay or repeal parts of Biggert-Waters.
But that worries environmentalists like Rob Moore, policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"We need to turn the conversation from 'How do we keep insurance cheap?' to 'How do we make insurance work as a way of managing the nation's flood risk?' " says Moore.
Moore argues that when flood insurance rates are kept artificially low, people remain and rebuild in flood zones, and then there's more political pressure to erect levees and seawalls that disrupt natural water systems.
"Those things have major environmental consequences for water quality, for fish, for wildlife habitat," Moore says.
Who Can Leave?
There's a financial argument, too. Payouts from massive hurricanes, like Katrina and Sandy, have left the National Flood Insurance Program about $24 billion in the hole. That's why Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania says the government shouldn't continue paying for people's desire to live in flood-prone areas.
"We'd be going back to a system where, literally, Warren Buffet can buy a home and as long as he makes it his primary residence, he can continue to have taxpayers subsidize his cost of flood insurance," Toomey said on the Senate floor last month.
But to assume communities can just pick up and leave strikes Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana as unrealistic.
"New Orleans is 8 feet below sea level. It's one of the great cities of the world. We're not going to move the entire city. We're not going to move St. Augustine, Fla. We're not going to move Miami Beach," Landrieu says in an interview in her Senate office.
Landrieu helped push a bill through the Senate that would delay most insurance rate increases for four years. House leaders are trying to drum up enough votes to go a step further and outright repeal the biggest hikes.