Final New Orleans flood insurance maps show lower rates for many

New flood insurance maps for New Orleans, expected to be made final Wednesday (March 30) by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, promise dramatically lower premiums for many property owners within the upgraded hurricane levee system. The maps remove thousands of properties from Special Flood Hazard Areas, which require flood insurance.

But the head of New Orleans’ floodplain management program urged homeowners and businesses that will now be located in the so-called X zones, which don’t require flood insurance, to continue buying the federally-backed policies anyway. That’s in case there’s another Hurricane Katrina in the city’s future.”While you may not be required to have it, please, please have flood insurance,” said Jared Munster, who also serves as City Hall’s Safety and Permits director. He said the cost of flood insurance in areas rated X is substantially cheaper than in areas that are more at risk of flooding, “a small expense for what could be a catastrophic occurrence.”

FEMA plans on Wednesday to send city officials a letter declaring the maps final. The City Council then has six months to adopt the maps. Munster said he expects the council to vote in June or early July on the maps and on some related changes to ordinances governing new construction.

Approval by FEMA follows almost three years of negotiations between the federal agency and city officials over the mapping process. The talks centered on how FEMA’s laser-based LIDAR mapping process handled some of the city’s more complicated geographic areas.

After the council approval, any changes in insurance rates are likely to go into effect at the policyholder’s next renewal date. Individual homeowner or business challenges of the map changes would then be made through their insurance companies.

A FEMA spokesman said an appeals and comment period, similar to what is ending in New Orleans on Wednesday, should begin for the proposed St. Bernard Parish flood map in the late spring and for the Jefferson Parish map in the early summer. Officials in those parishes have also been meeting for several years with FEMA officials over their concerns about the agency’s mapping process.

In Jefferson, officials have working with the agency to account for some levees that do not meet the federal agency’s 100-year protection requirements. Congress had ordered the agency to consider the risk reduction that these levees provide.

In New Orleans, the final Digitial Flood Insurance Risk Map shows in green the properties within the levee system that have changed from a Special Flood Hazard Area to a non-hazard area. The greening is a direct result of the completed reconstruction of the hurricane levee system by the Army Corps of Engineers since Katrina struck in 2005, FEMA and city officials say.

While thousands of property owners will benefit from greening and lower premiums, some will pay more. The maps indicate that dozens of properties, including many in Lower Coast Algiers, will be newly required to buy flood insurance.

The levees are designed to protect the city from storm surges caused by a hurricane with a 1 percent chance of occurring in any year, a so-called 100-year hurricane. As a result, FEMA was able to review areas within the system for the potential of flooding in a rainfall event that has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any year.

When Hurricane Katrina hit, its storm surge was considered the equivalent of a 250-year event along levees in St. Bernard Parish, which it topped, and a 150-year event along the Lake Pontchartrain lakefront, where some topping occurred. As much as 80 percent of New Orleans flooded in Katrina’s aftermath, with most flooding resulting from failures of levees and floodwalls.

As part of the improved protection system, the corps also added “resiliency” to its design of earthen and concrete portions of the levees. It has said the system will protect against failure of levees and floodwalls from a 500-year event, which would be created by a hurricane with a 0.2 percent chance of occurring in any year.

In presentations explaining that additional level of protection, however, the corps said some areas of the city would see flooding of as much as 5 feet of water, because surge would top levees in some locations, depending on a storm’s direction. And recent reviews by both the corps and the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East of the completed levee system’s ability to withstand topping from hurricanes has concluded that some locations already are low enough to be topped by some 100-year storms.

Munster said his department is reviewing how to adjust New Orleans’ building code’s requirements for elevation to match the new flood maps. At present, City Hall requires new construction to be built at least 18 inches above grade, but that does not always mean the building would be above the base flood elevation required by the flood map.

City officials might consider a change to require new construction to be built 1 foot above the base flood elevation in the flood maps. That’s already a standard that’s required by many mortgage lenders for new construction. If the change were approved, the regulation would be in effect only for new construction.

Munster said New Orleans’ building code allows older structures that are being renovated to be grandfathered in, unless the renovations involve more than 50 percent of the structure. He said 774 new construction projects were permitted in 2015.