Growing up in East St. Louis, on the banks of the Mississippi, I came to appreciate that the river has a mind of its own. Those who live near it know what I mean. One month, the river is too shallow for navigation; the next, it's at flood stage. That erratic nature can present real challenges for homeowners and business owners.
As readers of the Belleville News Democrat know, back in 2007, the Army Corps of Engineers informed metro-east residents that the levees built to protect them from the river's unpredictable nature were in need of repair. Shortly after, FEMA announced that new flood maps would require a large number of new properties to have flood insurance unless the levees were strengthen-ed.
Instead of waiting for Uncle Sam to come to the rescue, the people of Madison, Monroe and St. Clair counties seized the initiative and voted to raise their own taxes to fortify the levees and protect their towns. That level of local commitment may be unprecedented and should be applauded.
Until work is finished, though, many homeowners and businesses already required to purchase flood insurance may see their rates increase suddenly. Flood insurance premiums are manageable if they are kept low, but hikes of up to 400 percent might mean homeowners will face payments of as much as $2,000 each year to cover their properties. Those rates are beyond the means of most families.
This is anything but an isolated issue. Nearly 40 percent of metro-east homes and businesses are considered to be part of the flood plain and subject to insurance requirements.
Last week, the Senate passed legislation, called the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act, that gives homeowners and businesses in communities working to fix their levees an opportunity to obtain a much-needed discount on the flood insurance until FEMA certifies the levees as safe.
The bill now moves to the House of Representatives for consideration. I've worked closely with U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart on this issue for more than a year. I know he shares my concerns and will do all he can to win approval for the bill in the House.
The people of Madison, Monroe and St. Clair counties have shown an uncommon willingness to go above and beyond in strengthening their levees. Their responsibility deserves to be recognized and rewarded.
Dick Durbin is the senior U.S. senator from Illinois.