DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm David Greene.
We begin this morning in the Louisiana bayou, where if you own a home, a question always looming is: What happens if it's flooded and who pays for the damage? Many people rely on flood insurance, but much of that comes down to risk. Less than two years ago, Congress overhauled the National Flood Insurance Program to expand areas that are considered a high risk for flooding, meaning people there would have to pay higher premiums. Lawmakers just didn't realize how many people would be affected by that change and how hard they would be hit. Now Congress is thinking of reversing course.
NPR's Alisa Chang has the story.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: About 30 miles west of New Orleans, there's a small community called Bayou Gauche. Like other parts of South Louisiana, it's below sea level. Pumping stations keep the land dry during storms, as well as six foot levees. Those levees are just a few minutes from Gordon Matherne's house.
GORDON MATHERNE: See that bright, shiny spot right there? That's an alligator's eye.
CHANG: Oh, my God. He's looking right at us.
CHANG: Right next to that alligator is the levee. But you actually won't find that levee on the most recent flood map proposed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, because FEMA has decided it will no longer recognize levees that aren't certified by the U.S. Army Corp Engineers. So now Bayou Gauche shows up as a high risk flood zone, which Matherne says is ridiculous.
MATHERNE: The levees have been here for about 60 years and we've never had a flood since the levees were built.
CHANG: And under a new law that passed less than two years ago, FEMA's remapping of Bayou Gauche automatically triggers an increase in flood insurance rates for longtime homeowners here. The idea behind the Biggert-Waters Insurance Reform Act was to shift the financial risk of insuring flood zone properties from the government to homeowners. What lawmaker's didn't foresee at the time was that new FEMA flood maps would bring staggering premium hikes for many of the five and a half million people covered by the National Flood Insurance Program.
WARD AUCOIN: We live check-to-check. I mean and if you walk around this neighborhood, you'll find that most of the people around here live check-to-check.
CHANG: Ward Aucoin also lives in Bayou Gauche. Right now he's paying $370 a year for flood insurance. But in a few years, under Biggert-Waters, he's supposed to pay more than $17,000.
AUCOIN: You know, a meteor could hit my house too. But I don't want to spend $20,000 for just in case it hits my house. No one is flooding around here, so it's kind of hard for me to justify - and everybody to justify, $18,000 or whatever it's going to be - for something that's never happened that may happen.
CHANG: Because Aucoin still has a mortgage, he's required to purchase flood insurance. And 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 as he is.
AUCOIN: The neighbor across the street works at a local chemical plant. This one just retired from a chemical plant. That's my brother next door, works at a chemical plant. I work at a chemical plant.
CHANG: Stories like his have been flooding to congressional offices. So now lawmakers are trying to delay or repeal parts of Biggert-Waters. But that worries environmentalists such as Rob Moore at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
ROB MOORE: Yeah, 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?
CHANG: Moore says 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 sea walls that disrupt natural water systems.
MOORE: You know, those things have major environmental consequences for water quality, for fish, for wildlife habitat.
CHANG: There's a financial argument too. Payouts from massive hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy have left that 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.
SEN. PAT TOOMEY: 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.
CHANG: But to assume communities can just pick up and leave strikes Democrat Mary Landrieu of Louisiana as unrealistic.
SEN. MARY LANDRIEU: 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.
CHANG: 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 - outright repeal the biggest hikes.
Alisa Chang, NPR News.