Towns react to floodplain maps

As new FEMA floodplain maps are published, many communities resort to the appeals process, hire independent environmental consultants


"We got the FloodSmart folks involved very quickly. We created an outreach program really quick and we gave it a budget"

—Eugene Henry, Hazard Mitigation Manager for Hillsborough County, FL

In the last 10 years, flooding has become America’s most expensive natural disaster. Floods like those that drowned much of Louisiana in 2005 have cost Americans $2.39 billion in losses a year. In an attempt to take a proactive approach, Congress and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are attempting to update the nation’s flood maps using new digital technology to mark flood plains and area susceptible to flooding, otherwise known as high-risk zones.

“Flood hazards are constantly changing due to natural as well as man-made factors and, as with any measurement, additional information can improve the product,” FEMA Spokesman Brad Carroll said in reference to the project.

However, as the flood plain maps change, so too do the Flood Insurance Rating Maps, the maps insurance agents use to calculate property owners’ policy rates. New high-risk areas, made prevalent thanks to urban development and erosion, could mean higher insurance rates for property owners previous zoned as low-risk areas. It can also mean some business owners may have to squash plans for development projects, since FEMA places development restrictions on flood plains.

Local governments are working quickly to alert its community members and navigate FEMA’s appeals process. One case in point has been Hillsborough County, Florida.

Hazard Mitigation Manager Eugene Henry said the county acted immediately to involve community members and stakeholders when it received FEMA’s revised flood maps in 2005. The maps indicated that 24,400 parcels of property inside of county limits would be rezoned into the high-risk zones. The county’s first move was to join ranks with the National Flood Insurance Program’s public awareness campaign to spread the word. “We got the FloodSmart folks involved very quickly. We created an outreach program really quick and we gave it a budget,” Henry said.

Through its collaboration with the FloodSmart Campaign, Henry says county residents received notices in the mail. From there, Henry says, the county sounded a call to arms for several community groups, businesses and activists. The Hillsborough County Citizens Action Center set up a hotline for residents to call in about concerns. The county also set up workshops with local insurance agents to educate county residents about the possible repercussions of the revised flood maps. “We made partners and bought into the process,” Henry said.

Like other communities, the local response prompted Hillsborough County officials to pursue the appeals process.

FEMA is using digital topography revamps its flood maps. All sides agree that new digital measurements will help stakeholders better distinguish areas with low to moderate flood risks (Zones B, C, and X) from those high-risk residential and coastal areas that are especially susceptible to flooding (Zones A and V).

“The primary thing I see is that the mapping is better than it had been in the ‘80s,” said Paul Demers, a Kennebunk, Maine code enforcer. As a result, the lines dividing low-, moderate-, and high-risk flood zones in previous maps have moved considerably. “That moved some [properties] from [zones] B to A, A to B, even B to C,” Demers said.

However, FEMA officials and private environmental mapping experts disagree on what should be the standard method of computer imaging.

According to Robert Gerber, an environmental engineer at Sebago Technics, FEMA officials are using a simplified model to create its revised maps. “When you use the simpler methods, you have to make simplified, summative assumptions,” Gerber said.

On the other hand, he says he uses more sophisticated modeling and technology to re-calculate projected maximum wind speeds and wave height.

The main difference between the two methods, Gerber says, is money. He says FEMA can’t afford to use those methods with its workload and budget. “They only have a certain amount of money they can use” he said. Congress has allocated $200 million in federal funds, compared to billion-dollar loses, each per year for five years for the project. Gerber says it cost him tens of thousands of dollars to survey just one costal area.

Despite cost, communities are flocking to private contractors like Gerber for a second opinion. Kennebunk and six other southern Maine towns, including Portland and South Portland, pooled their resources to contract Gerber to survey their communities. Those town officials are now using the information they received to appeal FEMA’s maps.

Henry said Hillsborough County also contracted a planning firm, PBS and J, for an independent survey. “It allowed us to work with folks and say, ‘you’re very close,’” he said. Close, but, in some instances, not inside the high-risk zone. “What happens is ... they are in a low risk area, but their determining (insurance) company has a certain buffer zone,” said Henry.

Or, an owner’s property may be inside the high-risk zone, but the structure is not. In both cases, owners may keep their previous flood policies with the previous rates or grandfather their new policies, essentially paying their old rate for two years before paying the new rate.

Both Florida and Maine officials say FEMA has taken an evenhanded approach to communities that have sought to appeal its revisions, often delaying finalizing the maps to provide residents with ample opportunity to submit their claims. “FEMA has been fair and reasonable,” said Demers. FEMA officials say they plan to work closely with other communities to strengthen its flood maps and protect lives and property.

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