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FEMA agrees to levee map change that will benefit Metro East

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 11, 2011 - WASHINGTON - Federal officials have agreed to take uncertified levees into account when they update flood insurance maps -- a victory for levee districts in the Metro East area and for lawmakers representing states along the lower Mississippi River. The decision by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Commissioner Craig Fugate, announced Thursday by Illinois' U.S. senators, would stop the practice of FEMA flood-plain modelers designating areas as "without levee" to simplify mapping if the levee in question needs to be repaired or recertified.

Last month, 27 senators, including all four from Illinois and Missouri, had sent a letter asking FEMA to acknowledge the existence of the levees in the Metro East area and other levees under repair when mapping flood plains to update Flood Insurance Rate Maps.

The senators contended that the all-or-nothing levee designation put jobs and economic development at risk in areas such as the Metro East, where three counties (Monroe, Madison and St. Clair) imposed a temporary quarter-cent sales tax and have invested nearly $130 million to strengthen their levees in a project scheduled for completion in three years. On Thursday, Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., joined their counterparts from Mississippi and Arkansas in praising FEMA for agreeing to more precisely model the impact of uncertified but existing levees.

"This announcement will also likely buy the Metro East area additional time to bring the levees into a good state of repair -- a process, already underway, that serves as the only long-term solution," said Durbin. "I will continue working with my colleagues in the House and Senate to ensure that residents and businesses fully understand their flood risk and are not forced to pay unreasonably high insurance premiums."

Kirk said that Fugate's announcement "ensures that common sense prevails as new flood maps are drawn. If a levee is present but not federally accredited, FEMA should acknowledge its true protection level for a community and not pretend it does not exist."

Even so, Kirk said that the FEMA change "is not a solution for our state's aging levees. The need for levee improvements is great, and as the Congress continues to debate how to best rein in our spending we will need to make tough choices to prioritize how the federal government spends taxpayers' money."

U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, who had also sent a letter asking for the change, said that he applauded FEMA's decision "to reconsider what has been a flawed approach to the flood-mapping process."

Costello said that lawmakers "are continuing to make progress on delaying mandatory purchase requirements for flood insurance for people in our area, and we will continue to work in a bipartisan way to provide local jurisdictions the time needed to repair their levees and protect our communities."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.