The House Financial Services Committee voted Thursday to make a dramatic change in federal disaster insurance by expanding the national flood insurance program to cover wind damage.
The 38-29 vote, largely along party lines, was spurred by a pledge that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., made after Hurricane Katrina to the coastal communities of Mississippi and Louisiana.
Pelosi will lead a bipartisan delegation to the region in mid August before the second anniversary of the hurricane.
The vote was personal for Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., who lost his home in Katrina.
"This really helps people in all coastal areas," said Taylor, noting that residents of North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Maine and New York would be able to purchase the expanded coverage, as well as in his home state of Mississippi. "Fifty percent of all Americans live in coastal areas."
Taylor has made it a crusade to explain to members that the current system creates a shortfall, with private insurance companies covering wind damage and the federal government covering water damage, resulting in a bias by insurers who administer the flood program to label all damage as "water."
Under the committee-approved bill, policyholders of the flood program would be able to purchase wind policies. The policies would not be available for those seeking only wind coverage.
The multiple-peril residential policy limit would be set at $500,000 for the structure and $150,000 for contents. The bill increases the maximum coverage for flood insurance policies from $250,000 to $335,000 for residences.
House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., said the expanded program would pay for itself through premiums.
The legislation encountered stiff resistance from Republicans, however, who said it exposed the federal government to steep liability when the insurance fund was essentially bankrupt. Insurers and consumer groups warn that losses will rise dramatically as claims increase.
Frank acknowledged that the bill was controversial but said it would be ready for a floor vote in September.