Published On: Fri, Nov 1st, 2013

Floodplain change confounds local residents

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FEMA's floodplain map change in 2012 has baffled local residents by including properties that have never flooded and excluding properties that have flooded in the past. The map change has forced some residents to purchase flood insurance, pay higher rates, and obtain expensive elevation certificates.

FEMA’s floodplain map change in 2012 has baffled local residents by including properties that have never flooded and excluding properties that have flooded in the past. The map change has forced some residents to purchase flood insurance, pay higher rates, and obtain expensive elevation certificates.

A recent change to Marlinton’s floodplain map by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has baffled and angered town residents.

FEMA published a new floodplain map in 2012 that affected about 25 properties along Tenth Avenue in Marlinton. The map change brought into the floodplain properties east of Tenth Avenue, which historically have not been flooded, even by the cataclysmic 1985 flood. The map change excluded from the floodplain properties west of Tenth Avenue, which were inundated during floods in 1985 and 1996. The reason for the map adjustment is a mystery. No local government officials, insurance brokers or residents, interviewed by the newspaper, have been given an explanation by FEMA.

Homeowners have been forced to purchase flood insurance in areas that have never flooded. Others have seen their insurance rates jacked up or had to obtain expensive elevation certificates to prove the safety of their property.

The Pocahontas Times has requested information on the map change from FEMA. Specifically, the newspaper requested information on the technology, methodology and scientific rationale used to justify the floodplain map change.

Because private insurance companies did not cover flood loss, Congress created the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) in 1986. The NFIP was formed to fill that gap and was designed to incorporate community adoption of minimum standards for new construction and development to minimize future risk of flood damage. Many owners of older properties were eligible to obtain insurance at lower, subsidized rates that did not reflect the property’s true flood risk.

FEMA’s floodplain map change coincided with the enactment of the Biggerts-Waters Reform Act of 2012, which required FEMA to make the NFIP more financially stable. The law eliminates flood insurance subsidies for non-primary residences and businesses, and requires insurance rates to reflect actual risk. Grandfathered rates will be phased out starting in 2014.

Local State Farm insurance agent Darren Jackson described the impact of the new law.

“The new legislation from 2012 is causing flood insurance rates to increase,” he said. “We don’t know the full impact of that, yet. It’s just coming along gradually. It’s causing folks to have to get elevation certificates from the Assessor’s Office or from a surveyor – that didn’t have to have them before. Everybody’s having to get those now. From what I understand, that costs anywhere from $350 to $500.”

According to a FEMA fact sheet, “The Act phases out grandfathered rates and moves to risk-based rates for most properties when the community adopts a new Flood Insurance Rate Map. If you live in a community that adopts a new, updated Flood Insurance Rate Map, grandfathered rates will be phased out. This will happen gradually, with new rates increasing by 20 percent per year for five years. Implementation is anticipated in late 2014.”

Local officials don’t know if the latest Marlinton floodplain map is the “new Flood Insurance Rate Map,” contemplated by FEMA. Whether or not that is the case, the question remains – what procedures and technology did FEMA use to produce the latest map?

Marlinton flood plain coordinator Dick Groseclose thinks the map change is a mistake, but has been unable to get an explanation from the agency.

Local Farm Family insurance agent Kathy Mosesso thinks it’s a mistake, too, but doesn’t know who to blame. Mosesso’s house on Tenth Avenue – which flooded in 1985 and 1996 – was excluded from the floodplain by the recent map change.

“I don’t know that the mistake is by FEMA,” she said. “I do know that the current flood map is incorrect. As a property owner, I feel that we, as a town, need to get it corrected. I did receive a response from the National Flood Insurance Program, with my specifics, that said I am now not in the floodplain. They told me that I should be happy, because my rates would be lowered. I said, ‘that is not at all why I am calling, I’m calling because it’s wrong.’ That’s really where I am.”

FEMA’s mandate from Congress is to adjust NFIP policies to accurately reflect risk. Mosesso said the map change does the exact opposite.

“We are concerned that certain property owners are being required to carry flood insurance at a rate that is inappropriate for where their property is located,” she said. “I know I am in a floodplain, but the rate insurance map says I am not.”

Mosesso said town officials should be taking a more active role in resolving the problem.

One local couple purchased and moved into a house east of Tenth Avenue – specifically to get out of the flood zone. Due to the map change, their home was included in the floodplain and they were forced to purchase flood insurance. But the couple appealed to FEMA and won. The process required them to hire a surveyor and obtain an elevation certificate, at a cost of more than $250.

Tenth Avenue in Marlinton has historically been the stopping point for flood waters in the town. But a new FEMA floodplain map puts houses east of the avenue, which have never flooded, into the flodplain. FEMA's new map excludes other houses, to the west of the avenue, which have flooded in the past.

Tenth Avenue in Marlinton has historically been the stopping point for flood waters in the town. But a new FEMA floodplain map puts houses east of the avenue, which have never flooded, into the flodplain. FEMA’s new map excludes other houses, to the west of the avenue, which have flooded in the past.

Another homeowner, west of Tenth Avenue, was slapped with a rate increase due to the map change. The owner opted to reduce his flood coverage, rather than pay the higher rate. He has appealed the rate increase to FEMA, using an elevation certificate obtained from the Town Office.

Marlinton Mayor Joe Smith said the Town Office has elevation certificates on-file for many properties in the municipality. The mayor said residents can obtain copies of the certificates at no cost.

A recent report by NBC’s Today found that FEMA has put tens of thousands of people nationwide in flood zones by mistake. The report states that FEMA’s flood map budget has been cut in half since 2011. FEMA denied Today’s request for an interview and released this statement:

“FEMA administers the National Flood Insurance Program at the direction of Congress. In developing flood maps, FEMA works closely with communities at all steps of the process. When new preliminary maps are released, communities have the opportunity to review and appeal them before they ultimately adopt the maps. FEMA will always accept data from individuals and communities, as long as it meets established technical requirements.”

Follow-up articles will include FEMA’s response to The Pocahontas Times’ request for information and any efforts by local officials to clarify or appeal the map change. Information on how to appeal a FEMA floodplain determination can be found at www.fema.gov/information-homeowners.

About the Author

- Geoff Hamill can be contacted at gshamill@pocahontastimes.com