(WVUE) - People in this area know all too well the perils of floodwater. But as the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season is about to begin, flood insurance coverage is falling off.
Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard and St. Tammany parishes account for more than 1.1 million people, according to census data, an indication of the continued rebound after catastrophic Hurricane Katrina.
But with hurricane season upon us, concerns swirl over the level of participation in the flood insurance program. Homeowners, renters, and businesses can buy coverage but many have reasons why they won't – like the cost.
Floods are the most common and costliest natural disasters, according to FEMA, a realization that took hold decades ago. In 1968, the National Flood Insurance Program was established. The pressure is on Congress to reauthorize the program, which expires in September.
"Simply put, affordable and sustainable flood insurance is integral to ensuring that these communities continue their vital contributions to America," said Michael Hecht.
Hecht, of Greater New Orleans Inc., testified recently on Capitol Hill. GNO Inc. spearheads the Coalition for Sustainable Flood Insurance, which involves a national alliance.
"Overall, what we've seen in the program nationally is that participation has actually been declining," he said. "It's gone down about 11 percent since 2009, and that's problematic for the program as a whole because, in fact, there was flooding in all 50 states in America last year."
"What we have right now is about half of the households in the parish have flood insurance," said Zack Butterworth, director of federal relations for the City of New Orleans. "That's a lot higher rate than many of the communities around the country, but again, we are a city surrounded by levees that protect us. There's been significant federal investment - $14 billion to rebuild those levees after Katrina, but we're never a hundred percent safe, and whenever there's risk you have to mitigate that risk."
At Jefferson Parish's Emergency Operations Center, Michelle Gonzales, director of floodplain management, doesn't like what she sees.
"It is quite concerning to see that there is a large number of properties and individuals who are not purchasing flood insurance," she said. "Some of our numbers that we've looked at actually look like it's about only half of the households have flood insurance, which would be probably in the upper 80,000, anywhere from 85 to 88,000 households have a flood insurance policy. Those numbers have decreased somewhat drastically in the last two years. Over 7,000 households have dropped their flood insurance coverage."
When asked why she thought that was, Gonzales said, "A lot of the policyholders that are dropping flood insurance are in the Zone X, and so I feel like you often look at a flood map and say, 'Oh, I'm in Zone X, that means I'm not going to flood.' Really there's not such a thing as a no-flood zone."
And in St. Bernard?
"It could always get better, but you know I'm proud of our citizens," said St. Bernard Parish President Guy McInnis. "We have about 11,000 participants in the National Flood Insurance Program, and about 16,000 homes, so we're at somewhere around 75 percent participation."
St. Tammany had a population of 254,000 at the end of 2016, but FEMA said flood policies were down by 2,400 compared to 2007, when there were 27,000 fewer residents.
"So what we see here is that the home ownership rate in Orleans is really static, it's fallen in Jefferson and St. Tammany and across the metro area because it's really fallen nationwide," said Allison Plyer.
Plyer, chief demographer and executive director of the Data Center, believes that recovery dollars affected flood coverage decisions.
"If I were to think about what's probably affecting the flood insurance participation rates, it's the share of homeowners who don't have mortgages. We saw a huge jump in the share of homeowners without mortgages from pre-Katrina to now," she said. "…It's more likely because of getting Road Home and insurance payouts, and then they used that money to pay off their mortgages."
Others fear over-confidence.
"It's a false sense of security because the levees have been hardened, they've been raised, and that protects from storm surge," Gonzales said.
Some without coverage expect a federal response to mirror what happened after Katrina if there's future catastrophic flooding.
"Anybody to think that it's better to wait for a disaster and then cleanup afterwards - that's a fool's error. The best thing that we can do as individuals and as a country is to mitigate and to make sure that the disaster doesn't happen in the first place," Hecht said.
Hecht uses the acronym MAPP, which stands for mitigation, mapping, affordability, and participation when talking priorities.
"Right now, Sabrina, only five million out about 130 million households in America have flood insurance," Hecht said. "Many, many more millions should have it."
Experts say when more people participate in the flood insurance program, it's financially stronger and the potential for lower rates is greater. Hecht and others say premiums can be as low as a few hundred dollars a year, depending on where you live.