NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Michael Schultz and his wife moved down the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Belle Chasse in rural Plaquemines Parish in November 2012. They wanted to get away from big-city crime and they were attracted by lower property taxes.
A few months later came the news that sent them into a financial panic: Their $375-a-year flood insurance bill was about to leap to $25,000.
"I was like, God, there's no way we're going to do that," Schultz said in an interview Thursday.
Congress came to the rescue recently, amending a 2012 law, the Biggert-Waters Act.
Biggert-Waters was aimed at diminishing the $24 billion debt of the National Flood Insurance Program, but it also wound up threatening the financial security of homeowners across the nation with huge premium increases.
The changes Congress sent to President Barack Obama are a big relief for Schultz, but that relief is coupled with uncertainty. The potentially devastating $25,000 premium is no longer a threat. But steep increases remain a possibility.
An Associated Press analysis of data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency indicates more than 64,000 flood insurance policyholders in Louisiana face increases of up to 18 percent per year under the fix.
Schultz said his current flood insurance bill is $423. He can handle an 18 percent increase this year, he said. But added, "I don't know where the end is. I don't know if it's 18 percent forever."
Uncertainty aside, there is no mistaking the relief among Louisiana officials since Congress amended Biggert-Waters.
"I think you're going to see that, for the average person, this helps tremendously," said Michel Claudet, president of coastal Terrebonne Parish.
"This at least makes the challenge manageable," state Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon said. "It was absolutely ruinous before."
Still, the enthusiasm is tempered. Sen. Mary Landrieu, who with the rest of the Louisiana delegation, sought passage of a Biggert-Waters fix, said in a Senate statement that the legislation includes an "affordability target" of holding increases to only 1 percent. That's not a requirement, however, and Landrieu said more work is needed to keep flood insurance affordable.
More overhaul efforts are likely. The insurance program is up for renewal in 2017.
Among other things, Biggert-Waters had erased grandfathering rules that protected properties from price increases if updated flood maps put them in a new flood zone.
The new bill restores those lost grandfather protections, meaning new flood maps won't trigger massive, immediate rate increases.
Ownership changes also will no longer trigger an immediate jump to a risk-based rate. People hit by sky-high premiums after buying a new policy on a previously subsidized home will even be able to claim a refund.
The bill did not offer relief to the owners of vacation homes, businesses or buildings that have suffered repeat flooding. They will see mandatory 25 percent per year increases until they switch to a rate based on an elevation survey. There are close to 18,000 such policies in Louisiana, according to the FEMA data.
An 18 percent hike on residences each year isn't a sure thing, and public officials and residents point to various factors that could affect rates. In Terrebonne Parish, Claudet said money from federal programs and a strong local effort have resulted in more than 1,000 properties being elevated since 2008.
Schultz, protected from the Mississippi River to his east by a levee system but surrounded by other waterways in bayou-marbled Plaquemines Parish, says previous federal flood maps failed to take into account parish-built levees. "What's happening now is they're redoing the flood maps," he said, adding that work is being done to complete an 8-foot levee near his house. He hopes completion of the levee and the revised flood maps will provide for affordable insurance.
But uncertainty remains.
"I live in a pretty gray world these days; my policy renews in July," Stacey McCombs Mattison, another Plaquemines Parish resident, wrote in response to an email query. She had been expecting a new annual premium of between $10,000 and $20,000 before the Biggert-Waters fix. "It will be interesting to see where we are at when the bill comes in."