Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Flood map frustrations

Finding yourself in a FEMA Flood Zone can be a huge headache. To help you understand the process and effects of FEMA Flood Mapping here is a great article from Flordia, one place that knows about flooding.

By AMY REININK Sun staff writer

The winds raged and the rain poured, but Laura Wilson's home survived hurricanes Frances and Jeanne without so much as a puddle outside.

So Wilson was shocked to get a letter from her mortgage company about a month ago "telling me that if I didn't buy flood insurance within 30 days, they would buy it for me," Wilson said.

The letter was the result of an update to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Flood Insurance Rate Maps that placed Wilson's home in the Mentone subdivision off SW Archer Road in a flood zone - a classification Wilson said is almost certainly flawed, as she's miles from any body of water and her property never floods.

Alachua County officials said roughly 3,000 parcels in the county may be in the same situation.

Wilson said she didn't get really annoyed until she learned that the new maps were updated using maps drawn in 1974 - decades before her house was even built.

"This whole thing is sort of a fiasco," Wilson said. "Your property values are dropping if you're in a flood zone. The implications for homeowners are kind of big here."

Wilson is one of many Alachua County residents planning to attend a meeting with a FEMA representative tonight at the Alachua County Commission chambers, and one of many who hopes the meeting provides some answers.

County Manager Randall Reid said FEMA will not discuss specific parcels of property with individual homeowners. FEMA also will not make a presentation. The representative will answer general questions about the flood map program.

Modernizing maps

FEMA started to administer the National Flood Insurance Program in 1968.

As part of the program, FEMA has long offered maps showing which parts of a community are in a 100-year-flood zone, or an area that has a 1 percent or higher chance of flooding in a given year.

Anyone can buy flood insurance, but most mortgage companies require anyone who lives in a flood zone to carry it. That makes the FEMA flood maps especially important, as they determine who has to pay for flood insurance and who doesn't.

A few years ago, FEMA started working with municipal governments to modernize its flood maps, which in many cases were 30 years old or older.

FEMA approached Alachua County officials about modernizing its maps in 1999, said Michael Fay, assistant director of Alachua County's Public Works Department. At that point, the most recent FEMA flood maps for Alachua County were created in 1984 and updated in 1988, Fay said.

To update those maps, FEMA requested maps created by the North Central Florida Regional Planning Council in 1974 that were updated in 1986, saying they provided more detailed information about flood zones than the existing FEMA flood maps, Fay said.

But even with the 1986 update, Fay said the planning-council maps didn't include any information about recent developments in Alachua County or any recent stormwater improvements.

"FEMA viewed those as having the most accurate information available to them," Fay said. "They didn't ask for any development plans or anything like that."

Alachua County's Public Works Department started getting calls from residents like Wilson in August and September, Fay said. Several residents from subdivisions like Haile Plantation and Huntington approached the County Commission about the maps last month.

County commissioners and staff scheduled a meeting to discuss how to assist homeowners in newly designated flood zones.

Residents can appeal their flood-zone designations through an individual map-amendment process. To do so, they must pay the county $10 to issue a letter with information about the current flood-zone status, then pay for a survey of their land.

If the survey shows that the land is not in a flood zone, it isn't required to carry flood insurance, though the actual FEMA flood map stays the same, Fay said.

Wilson said the survey cost her $350, and said if her house isn't in a flood zone, it will cost an additional $100 for the surveyor to file paperwork with her mortgage company to relieve her of the flood-insurance requirement. Her flood insurance itself costs $317 per year, she said.

"It's not cheap," Wilson said. "And none of this has been fun."

Reid said county commissioners are committed to doing everything possible to ease the burden on affected homeowners, and said they would discuss waiving the $10 fee at the meeting.

But Fay said he's not sure what else county officials can do.

"We've tried to talk to FEMA about this," Fay said. "It appears that the remedies people are taking now - applying for individual letters of map amendments - it appears that's our only option."

State of the state

Alachua County isn't the only county to have problems with the new maps.

Reports from across the state describe homeowners protesting changes that place their homes in flood zones, with most saying they believe the new designations are erroneous.

And then there's the problem in Philadelphia. In 2002, a team of Temple University researchers started mapping a flood-prone region near Philadelphia to provide FEMA updated, detailed information about flood zones.

The maps they produced illuminated new flood risks in exacting detail, highlighting risks from minor tributaries and breaking down risks to a house-by-house level.

The problem: The maps were too specific. FEMA officials told the Temple researchers they couldn't use the maps because they were too detailed and only available in a digital format, said Jeffrey Featherstone, the Temple University hydrologist and planner who headed the project.

FEMA did not respond to questions about the Temple maps.

Featherstone said he's working with FEMA to find ways to make the maps usable. He said the situation was not only infuriating, but dangerous, leaving flood-prone people without knowledge that could save their lives and homes.

"The hydrology and modeling done for 90-some percent of all the areas mapped by FEMA is 30 to 40 years old," Featherstone said. "Once you develop in suburban areas, you change the hydrology drastically. However, most of the ordinances cities and counties have in place are based on old data and old maps and old information. We're having a real frustrating time with FEMA procedures and obsolete protocols that only encourage mediocrity. Some are understandable, but requiring paper maps at coarse scales doesn't seem too enlightening in a digital age."

Local solutions

Reid said the county's fledgling stormwater management program will provide hydrological information for timely, accurate flood maps in the future.

And Fay said the county's land development regulations require developers building on areas with flood hazards to apply for a map revision with FEMA. He said that allows FEMA to change its flood maps to reflect changes from new subdivisions, relieving the residents of those subdivisions of the problems people like Wilson are having.

Featherstone said based on his experience with FEMA, the agency will do everything within its power to help - even if its power is limited.

"The dilemma is that FEMA understands these problems," Featherstone said. "This is an agency that's getting beat up, and it seems like it wants to do the right thing, but doesn't have the resources to do it."

The Gainesville SunCopyright 2006, The Gainesville Sun

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