Great Falls Tribune: Tester demands Corps' help with levee checks

Sen. Jon Tester waded into the floodwaters 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 Emergency 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 hundreds more for flood insurance.

After learning that the Corps of Engineers was helping communities in Pennsylvania 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, funding a comprehensive survey of the levee for certification is not possible for these small communities,” Tester wrote.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the federal government began requiring vulnerable communities to certify that their levees are up to code.

Before that, the Federal Emergency 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 insurance 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 Engineers on the issue when Corps officials appeared before an Appropriations subcommittee for budgeting.

While many riverside landowners and cities are unaware of the murky issue, a few people have been pushing Montana’s congressional 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 as a high-risk for flooding, residents wouldn’t be allowed to build — even if their homes burned down.

“Our property values 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 Valley County Commissioner Dave Pippin. “We need to sit down and identify how you’re going to regulate flood plains. We’re just thankful that our representatives are paying close attention to it.”

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