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Originally published Thursday, December 2, 2010 at 9:27 AM

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Senators push to delay flood insurance requirement

Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and New York Sen. Charles Schumer are pushing a measure that would stave off property owners having to buy mandatory and perhaps expensive flood insurance in areas newly designated by the federal government as being at high risk of inundation.

Associated Press

EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. —

Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and New York Sen. Charles Schumer are pushing a measure that would stave off property owners having to buy mandatory and perhaps expensive flood insurance in areas newly designated by the federal government as being at high risk of inundation.

Durbin said the Senate bill he introduced Wednesday with fellow Democrat Schumer would give more time for areas including southwestern Illinois to upgrade their river levees and deal with the prospect of higher flood insurance rates, if the Federal Emergency Management Agency declares their levees functionally useless.

Similar to a bill recently advanced by the House, the Durbin-backed Flood Insurance Affordability and Risk Notification Act would provide for a five-year delay of mandatory insurance, followed by a five-year period of gradually increasing premiums.

The latest legislative effort comes as angst mounts over FEMA's plans to unveil new floodplain maps that in southwestern Illinois' case would rescind the accreditation of 64 miles of earthen Mississippi River levees protecting St. Louis' Illinois suburbs. FEMA believes those levees, more than half a century old, do not meet its minimum threshold for certification.

Critics insist such a move would onerously saddle thousands of the region's property owners with higher, unaffordable insurance rates while devastating land values and severely crimping development.

Three of that region's counties, along with 16 villages and cities, filed a federal lawsuit last month in East St. Louis against FEMA and its parent U.S. Department of Homeland Security, asking a judge to keep the redrawn maps from taking effect.

A judge has not ruled on the lawsuit's request as of Thursday, given that FEMA has not yet filed a response.

FEMA is assessing whether levees can handle a 100-year flood - that is, an inundation so big that it has only a 1 percent chance of happening any given year. It's FEMA's threshold for classifying an area as high-risk or not.

Those levees in southwestern Illinois, protecting a swath of land known as the American Bottoms, were built after World War II to weather a 500-year flood - one with a 0.2 percent chance of happening any year.

Though none has ever failed, the Army Corps of Engineers believes those river defenses require, by some estimates, hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs to get them up to FEMA standards before the new flood maps come out.

Without repairs, FEMA plans to declare them functionally useless - a downgrade that would force thousands of the region's homeowners with federally backed mortgages to buy flood insurance, even if they've never been swamped.

Banks offering federally backed mortgages to borrowers in high-risk flood zones could even buy flood insurance for the properties and send the borrowers the bills or foreclose if homeowners resist getting coverage on their own. People who own their home outright - or without a federally backed mortgage - aren't required to carry the insurance, though they assume the loss if flooding happens - much like a motorist does while driving an uninsured vehicle.

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Property owners caught a break earlier this year, when FEMA agreed to offer up to two years' eligibility for the National Flood Insurance Program's Preferred Risk Policy - the program's lowest-cost option - to small businesses and homeowners on any land the new maps show as high-risk for the first time. The new rates, offered without legislative action, will become available after the redrawn maps take effect.

The savings could be big: A homeowner's yearly premium under the preferred risk program might be $300 - four to five times less than what it might cost otherwise, officials have said.

FEMA also announced recently that it wouldn't put the new flood maps in play until the end of next year - a delay that came at the behest of federal lawmakers and worried levee district officials responsible for southwestern Illinois' flood protection.

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