Tester demands Corps’ help with levee checks

The Great Falls Tribune

by Kim Skornogoski

Sen. Jon Tester waded into the floodwa¬ters Thursday, pushing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help homeowners and towns situated in the state’s many flood plains.

New requirements by the Federal Emer¬gency Management Agency are forcing people living in the flood plains to either fork over hundreds of thousands of dollars to verify their levees are safe— or pay hun¬dreds more for flood insurance.

After learning that the Corps of Engi¬neers was helping communities in Penn¬sylvania and Mississippi, Tester fired off a letter to the Corps of Engineers Thursday, asking why Montanans have to pay for expensive certifications.

“Without the assistance of the Army Corps of Engineers, fund¬ing a comprehensive survey of the levee for certification is not possible for these small commu-n¬ities,” Tester wrote.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the federal government began requiring vulnerable com¬munities to certify that their lev¬ees are up to code.

Before that, the Federal Emer¬gency Management Agency relied on old paperwork — some dating back to the levees’ construction.

If communities aren’t certified, their area could be labeled a flood-hazard zone. In Montana, that could raise individual insur¬ance rates by as much as $1,500 a year. Homeowners in bayou states like Louisiana could see rates increase by $100 a week.

Last week, Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., pressed the Corps of Engi¬neers on the issue when Corps offi¬cials appeared before an Appropria¬tions subcommittee for budgeting.

While many riverside landown¬ers and cities are unaware of the murky issue, a few people have been pushing Montana’s congres¬sional delegation to address the issue before the certification lapses. For the West Great Falls Levee District that deadline is April 28.

“Nobody would listen to us,” said Ron Litostansky, head of the levee district. “They finally started realizing what a serious issue this is for people. It’s an uphill battle yet, but at least we’re seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.”

The head of the Vaughn Levee District, Jim Fryberger, said the small town never could afford to pay for certification, which costs around $250,000 and only can be done by an out-of-state company. If the town is classified high-risk for flooding, residents wouldn’t be allowed to build — even if their homes burned. “Our property val¬ues will really drop,” Fryberger said. In Valley County, the entire city of Glasgow sits in a 2-mile¬wide flood plain.

“It’s a huge problem,” said Val¬ley County Commissioner Dave Pippin. “We need to sit down and identify how you’re going to regu¬late flood plains. We’re just thankful that our representatives are paying close attention to it.”