A little more than a month ago, The Pocahontas Times submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to Director William Fugate of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The request was for records, indicating the technology and procedures used to modify Marlinton and Cass floodplain maps, during the period January 2009 to January 2012. The request also sought records of payments made by FEMA for the purchase of flood-affected properties in Cass, during the period 1985-2013.
The purpose of the request is to clarify why new floodplain maps, issued in the last three years, have included areas that have not flooded, historically, and excluded areas that have flooded. Due to the bewildering map changes, owners of homes that have never flooded have been forced to purchase flood insurance. Others – in properties that have flooded – have been told they are no longer in the floodplain. The map changes have baffled local residents and created a situation in which they have lost confidence in FEMA.
The Pocahontas Times continues to investigate irregularities of the new floodplain maps and has discovered a striking example of why their accuracy is being questioned.
In 1998, FEMA provided $247,300 in Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) funds to the Pocahontas County Commission to purchase properties in Cass, because the lots were in the Greenbrier River floodplain. As a result of the most recent floodplain change, those properties – paid for by taxpayer money – are no longer in the floodplain.
Now owned by the county government, those HMGP-purchased properties provide no tax revenue and cannot be sold. The properties are restricted in perpetuity, “for purposes compatible with open space, recreation, or wetlands management practices,” and each deed contains an attachment with that restriction.
Now that those properties are entirely outside the 100-year floodplain, three questions are raised. First, did the government waste $247,300 buying properties that were not in an actual flood zone? Second, since the properties are no longer in the floodplain, why can’t the county sell them, putting them back in the tax base and allowing for their productive use? Finally, is FEMA’s most recent floodplain map change simply grossly inaccurate?
Questions about the accuracy of FEMA’s floodplain maps are not limited to Pocahontas County. In June 2009, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York issued a press release, a portion of which reads: “FEMA is engaging in an overhaul of their flood maps as part of the Flood Map Modernization Initiative (FMMI). The goal of the program is to use new techniques to create more accurate maps, but the results have proven inconsistent and, at times, inaccurate, costing families whose homes have been mistakenly added to the maps hundreds of dollars each year for mandatory flood insurance. Significant problems stemming from the floodplain mapping programs were documented in New York, New Mexico and across the country. Several New York and New Mexico communities encountered problems with the new flood maps proposed under the FMMI.”
Schumer had to threaten FEMA with legislation, but successfully forced the agency to change inaccurate floodplain maps for New York communities. In a September 2013 interview, Schumer told NBC’s The Today Show, “They’ve got to revamp the whole program; it’s one big mess. What we’re trying to say to FEMA is: Stop. Stop and come up with a better way to do this, not using wrong maps to include people in flood insurance who are never going to have a flood.”
Since FEMA has not responded to The Pocahontas Times’ FOIA request in a timely manner, the newspaper will forward the information and questions – along with newly discovered irregularities – to federal elected representatives, including Senator Joe Manchin, Senator Jay Rockefeller and Representative Nick Rahall, for their assistance.
The Pocahontas Times is grateful to Scott Triplett in the Pocahontas County Assessor’s Office for his assistance in researching this information.