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Chinook Observer: New Flood Maps Promise Relief

Chinook Observer | Oct. 16, 2013 4:06 a.m. | Updated: Oct. 16, 2013 11:20 a.m.

Contributed By:

Natalie St. John nstjohn@chinookobserver.com

LONG BEACH — While residents of some coastal Oregon and Washington communities are expressing dismay over changes in a new set of federal flood hazard-area maps, local officials are breathing a sigh of relief.

For Peninsula residents at least, the new maps are good news, because they remove many area homes from high flood-risk zones, where insurance is costly and construction permits and loans can be difficult to obtain.

If the new maps are made official in 2014, they could provide financial relief and better construction opportunities for locals, Long Beach community development director Gayle Borchard said in an interview last week.

“I honestly don’t know who it’s bad news for, unless you sell flood insurance!” Borchard said.

In August, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released a new set of tentative “Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRM),” for the first time since the late 1970s.

Insurance brokers and lenders use these FIRMs to determine which buildings in a community are prone to flooding, and how likely they are to flood in any given year. Flood risks associated with storms and tidal surges are included in the analysis. Not included is the risk from tsunamis like those that happen here every several hundred years.

Changes worry some

In some other communities across the country including coastal Oregon, the new maps, which use weather, land, hydrological and surveying data to predict flood probability, place far more land inside of so-called “Special Flood Hazard Areas” — the places that would be inundated with water during a 100-year flood.

In 2012, President Obama signed into law the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act — a series of reforms to national flood insurance policies that, among other things, required FEMA to phase out long-running flood insurance subsidies in areas of very high flood-risk. The insurance program has incurred enormous liabilities in recent years due to flooding in places like those on the eastern seaboard hit by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Many officials say the changes were long-overdue and necessary to adequately prepare American communities for natural disasters. But they were hardly welcomed by homeowners in Special Flood Hazard Areas, where insurance premiums are slated to increase by as much as 25 percent in the coming years.

In Clatsop County for example, where some neighborhoods have been newly designated as high-risk flood zones, residents and politicians have said that increased flood insurance rates could crush homeowners, according to an Oct. 14 Daily Astorian article.

Those concerns may be overblown. According to a recent analysis conducted by researchers at the Government Accountability Office, the non-partisan research arm of Congress, these changes will only affect 7.9 percent of all flood insurance policies – about 438,000 of the roughly 5,538,000 policies in the U.S. And about 98.8 percent of the properties slated to lose federal insurance subsidies are second homes or business properties.

Pacific County benefits

But Pacific County would actually benefit if the new maps were approved, Pacific County planner Tim Crose said Monday morning.

“It appears that most of the flood zones have been pushed back, which means that a lot of property owners that were in the flood plain may not be now,” Crose said, “It would give people breaks on their flood insurance. … It’ll be cheaper to construct if you’re not in a flood zone.”

When FEMA last mapped the county, large swaths of the Peninsula fell into these zones.

FEMA divided the Special Flood-Hazard Areas into two sub-groups: So-called “A Zones,” the places with the highest risk of flooding, and “V Zones,” where FEMA projected that buildings would actually be hit by waves during a storm surge.

But the modeling used during the ’70s to predict local flood probability was less precise, and patterns from other parts of the country may have been over-generalized to our local area, Borchard said.

Since then, weather patterns, mapping and weather-monitoring technologies and the physical landscape have all changed significantly, Borchard said, and the new maps reflect that.

“All of our A Zones went away in Long Beach, and our V Zone retreated a fair amount — substantially, I’d say. … This model reflects that the landscape has changed here. We have much deeper beach, and the dune is higher than it was in 1979,” Borchard explained.

Practically speaking, this means that if the maps are officially adopted in 2014, many local homeowners could save a lot of cash.

Being placed in a V or A Zone has serious practical consequences, including significantly higher flood insurance costs, and increased likelihood that a lender will mandate flood-insurance.

In V zones, it’s also harder to secure lending for building projects, and builders often have to take expensive measures to meet tougher building code standards.

Once the maps are finalized – a process that could take about a year to complete — homeowners whose properties are placed in a lower-risk category could see reduced insurance rates, and some could choose to carry less flood insurance, or even do away with it all together. Building and borrowing requirements might also be relaxed in areas that are no longer V Zones, Borchard said.

Maps not finalized

Of course, it is likely that not everyone will benefit from the new maps.

Some homeowners will stay in high-risk zones, and some of them may feel that they have been wrongly placed in those zones.

There is an appeals process for residents who believe their property should be categorized in a lesser zone, but it requires the homeowner to hire a surveyor at a cost of around $500 to establish their property’s elevation, Borchard said.

No dates have been set, but FEMA has indicated to county and city officials that they will hold a series of public meetings, where citizens can learn more about the maps, and express any concerns they may have.

And while nothing is certain yet, many local homeowners are already looking forward to potentially big savings.

Former Long Beach city councilman Gary Luethe is one resident who may benefit from the new FIRM, if it is approved.

Luethe said Monday afternoon that he sees flood insurance as a pointless expense, because it doesn’t cover tsunami damage. But because his home at the end of S. 17th Street in Long Beach is in a V Zone, he has to pay it whether he likes it or not.

He’s hoping that will change when the new maps are adopted — a process that could take about a year.

“I think that they’re going to wipe it out. I’m hoping. If they can wipe it out completely, that’s what should be done,” Luethe said, “I wouldn’t have to have flood insurance. What helps me out is that it would save me $500 a year.”

Read more on chinookobserver.com.

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