News 8 Investigates – Flooded With Problems

About 4,000 buildings in city of La Crosse in high-, medium-risk floodplain

Some homeowners in La Crosse are losing value on their property, and the high risk of flooding each year is the cause. Now, the city of La Crosse is working to improve the situation.

Some of the things that make the Coulee Region unique are the bluffs and the rivers. Those are also the two things that make La Crosse one of the most unique areas in the U.S. for flooding.

About 4,000 homes, businesses and garages in La Crosse are in a high- or medium-risk floodplain. Those people are required by federal law to pay for flood insurance, if they carry a mortgage.

The cost of flood insurance is an added expense to these homeowners, but a discount is available. However, in the city of La Crosse, it isn’t much.

A community is rated by FEMA using the Community Rating System on a 1-10 scale based on its preparedness for a flood. The lower a community’s ranking, the higher the discount on their flood insurance premium.

Currently La Crosse is rated an 8, meaning homeowners in the floodplain receive a 10 percent reduction to their annual premium.

George Lay has lived in his home on La Crosse’s northside for 22 years. He is just one of the thousands of homeowners in the city of La Crosse paying the high price of living in the floodplain.

“The flood insurance has gone up constantly since we’ve been here,” Lay said.

Lay is currently paying about $400 a year for flood insurance. He said he goes out of his way to lower his premium every chance he gets.

“I take the very least coverage I can and every two years as I pay down my home I decrease the coverage so that I can keep it cheaper,” Lay said.

La Crosse’s Floodplain Manager, Doug Kerns, said not all folks are as fortunate to only be paying $400 a year.

“There’s insurance policies in the city that are $129 a year all the way up to $6,000 a year,” Kerns said.

Lay said he understands the need to have flood insurance, but wants the city to be doing more to lower the cost of his premium, and protect his home.

“The thing that’s bothering me the most is that we have levees in this city that nobody has bothered to keep up, keep track of or even watch over,” Lay said.

There are seven levees in La Crosse, all protecting the northside. Kerns said a few of them have been improved in recent years, but they were built in 1965 under emergency conditions while the city was flooding.

“They were throwing anything and everything they could find to stop that water,” Kerns said. “If one of those levees were to break there would be significant flooding and possible loss of life.”

Kerns said bringing the levees up to accreditation standards would provide insurance relief, but said that’s been looked at by the city on numerous occasions. The city has said making the necessary repairs won’t happen in the near future because those improvements would cost millions.

“They need to be wider, they need to be higher and they need to be built out of different material that doesn’t allow water to pass through,” Kerns said.

“You’re playing with people’s lives down here,” Lay said.

But the issue of rising insurance premiums flows beyond a homeowner’s wallet.

Kerns said the high cost of flood insurance is affecting the housing market too.

“It is shutting down the sales in special flood hazard areas,” Kerns said.

“I was hoping to be able to leave the home for the kids to sell, split the money, at least leave them something. Now all I can leave them is a burden. I told my son bulldoze the house when I’m dead. Bulldoze the house and try to sell the land because he’ll never get anything out of this land with that house sitting on it,” Lay said.

Kerns said there is hope for these homeowners, however.

La Crosse officials have recently begun working to reduce the city’s Community Rating System from an 8 to a 7, which would give homeowners, like Lay, a 15 percent deduction on their annual premium.

“Activities from storm drains, storm sewers, maintenance programs, it’s a wide range of activities,” Kerns said. “We’re moving in the right direction and I feel very good about our next visit and our rating systems.”

But until that happens, Lay said he will continue his battle with the city until he and his neighbors are safe.

“If we can get anyone out of the floodplain we’re that much further ahead,” Lay said.

A third issue facing homeowners living in the floodplain is that they are limited in the amount they can improve their homes. Wisconsin state law states a homeowner in the floodplain cannot improve their home by more than 50 percent of its assessed value, for as long as you own your home, without raising it out of the floodplain.

The Grimm-Waters Act of 2014 put in place set increases that could increase flood insurance premiums as much as 18 percent each year.

The next assessment for the rating system will take place in 2017.

Kerns said last year about $600,000 in insurance premiums left the city of La Crosse and went to the federal government. Some years that number has been closer to $1 million.

Click here for more information from the city of La Crosse about living in the floodplain