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updated: 7/13/2011 11:02 AM

Bill offers break for properties in flood zone

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Associated Press

EAST ST. LOUIS -- Overseers of levees in southwestern Illinois welcomed Wednesday the advance of a federal measure that could give thousands of property owners up to a five-year reprieve in having to buy costly flood insurance in areas with questioned defenses against rivers.

The House on Tuesday voted 406-22 to add five years to the life of the debt-ridden National Flood Insurance Program. The measure includes a provision allowing communities required to buy flood insurance because of the findings of new mapping to seek a up to a half-decade suspension of that mandate while they fix their levees. Flood insurance rates would be phased in over an additional five years.

The measure has the backing of the White House and now heads to the Senate, where the chief engineer of the agency scrambling to upgrade 64 miles of aging southwestern Illinois levees along the Mississippi River cautioned that similar measures calling for reprieves in buying flood insurance have stalled.

"Clearly, this is a big step forward for us," the Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District's Les Sterman said. "One of our goals is to try to limit the economic damage to the community during the time we're making improvements, and one of the components of the damage would be the (insurance) mandate.

"Let's hope we have better luck this time in the Senate," added Sterman, whose group last month unveiled a five-year, $161-million plan to upgrade the region's levees from Alton south to Columbia.

That proposal, requiring environmental permits and approval by the Army Corps of Engineers, will be presented to the council's board next week and be largely funded by a quarter-cent sales tax collected in the three affected counties since 2009.

"Our region has worked diligently to make needed improvements to the levees, and we worked to make sure this legislation helps our region versus harming it," said Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill. With the bill, "our unique issues have been addressed."

Officials in St. Louis' Illinois suburbs began planning levee improvements after the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced in 2007 it would declare the levees functionally useless, requiring thousands of property owners with federally-backed mortgages to buy expensive flood insurance.

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate told federal lawmakers recently that the agency would hold off on decertifying those levees, saying it would stop using a questioned assessment technique and turn to more nuanced methods to measure the protection the levees provide.

Dozens of congressional members from both parties, including several from Illinois who on Tuesday called the mapping important and necessary, had lobbied for the shift in FEMA's mapping criteria.

Anger had been mounting over FEMA's plans to unveil new flood plain maps, with FEMA asserting that those barriers, more than half a century old, do not meet its minimum threshold for certification.

Critics insist that without that accreditation thousands of property owners would be onerously saddled with higher, unaffordable insurance rates, land values would be devastated and development crimped.

Fugate has assured lawmakers that the new flood maps would not be completed before a new analysis was completed.