Home News Louisiana officials debate house elevation standards

Louisiana officials debate house elevation standards

David Jacobs

The Center Square

A state official on Tuesday suggested Louisiana should enact stricter home construction standards to mitigate flood risk, but an industry representative said that would make houses unaffordable for the middle class.

Building above the base flood elevation reduces risk and flood insurance costs, state floodplain management coordinator Cindy O’Neal said.

Speaking to a legislative committee, she gave an example of a house built right at the base flood elevation, which is the level of a flood believed to have a 1 percent chance of happening in a given year. Building that house two feet above that level would cost an additional $4,690 but reduce annual flood insurance premiums from $2,100 to $700, she said.

“In 3.3 years you’ll get that money back,” she said. “Over the life of your 30-year mortgage, you’re going to save over $37,000.”

O’Neal suggested enacting a statewide requirement to build above the base flood level, saying about 15 percent of communities already require building above that level.

Rep. Valarie Hodges, a Denham Springs Republican, said she had spoken to lawmakers from other flood-prone states that had adopted a two-foot standard.

“That’s fantastic, because it needs to be statewide,” O’Neal said. “If you just adopt it in one community or one parish, the developers will go to the neighboring parish and build, because it’s going to be cheaper for them.”

O’Neal said many homeowners don’t like being told by the government what to do with their property, though Hodges noted government often is expected to compensate homeowners who have been flooded.

But Jerry Passman, who represents the Louisiana Home Builders Association, said the higher standards would be much more expensive for buyers than O’Neal suggests. He said for a roughly 3,000-square foot house his company built, building three-and-a-half feet above the standard elevation added about $150,000 to the cost, though it was one of only two houses in the neighborhood that didn’t flood in 2016.

“So we make housing unaffordable for the middle class,” he said. “And then we have to drive 1,000 miles and stay in a hotel for Christmas to see our grandkids because they moved to a state where housing is affordable.”

The discussion was part of a meeting of the Comite River Diversion Canal Project Task Force, which heard the $343 million project is on track for completion by the third quarter of 2021. Access issues with Kansas City Southern Railway nearly have been resolved, officials said, and land acquisitions are ongoing.

The task force also heard a presentation about the Darlington Reservoir, a potential project the Army Corps of Engineers now is studying. Models show the project could have reduced flooding by as much as seven feet in some areas during the 2016 flood.

Though the Corps does not yet have a cost estimate for the project, Hodges said she has heard it would cost “a fraction” of the Comite diversion. She suggested it would be a worthy project for the $1.2 billion in federal flood mitigation dollars that have been appropriated to Louisiana but not yet awarded.

“It would save billions of dollars,” she said.