The first major flood map update in more than 25 years may affect flood elevation baselines and could lead to lower insurance rates for some Twin Harborites, Federal Emergency Management Agency experts said recently.
FEMA is set to hold a major public open house in January so citizens and business owners can find out how changes to the map affect them. Also present will be local officials and representatives from the Department of Natural Resources who are tasked with risk assessment for other potential natural disasters in the area.
Updates to flood insurance rates will also reflect Congressional reforms passed in 2012 that are aimed at improving actuarial risk and the bottom line for the federal government in terms of covering the risk, according to FEMA.
Flood plain maps help establish rates for flood insurance by designating areas as moderate-to-low or high risk of flooding. There are also “undetermined-risk areas,” where no analysis has been done but “a flood risk still exists,” the FEMA definitions say.
High-risk properties have “at least a 1 in 4 chance of flooding during a 30-year mortgage,” according to FEMA. Insurance in high-risk areas is required and can be steep.
Greater Grays Harbor Inc. membership coordinator James Messer, and his wife CJ, wanted to buy a house in Aberdeen recently when they discovered the property on Cherry Street they were about to close on was in a high-risk, special flood hazard area. The flood insurance alone would cost them $4,000 per year or more than $330 per month, he said.
“We would have bought the house, but for the (flood) insurance,” he said. They decided it was more prudent financially to wait. It is not known now how the new maps will affect rates on properties such as this one. The Messers are now looking for a property up a hill in the moderate-to-low zone but in their price range of $100,000 it may be tough to find, Messer concedes.
Recently, several representatives from FEMA’s Region 10 briefed county, city, tribal officials and The Daily World about the mapping efforts. The public open house, planned for mid-January, will likely be held at the Rotary Log Pavilion, Aberdeen Public Works Director Malcolm Bowie said.
Federal legislation creating the regulations covering flood insurance was passed in 1968 after Hurricane Betsy.
“Nobody knew what the risk was, so the federal government decided to assess risk” and do flood studies “to provide flood insurance based on community needs, to come up with flood plain regulations that met a minimum criteria and to keep reasonably safe from flooding once the process was done,” said Ted Perkins, FEMA regional engineer for Region 10, which covers Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska.
The initial studies were done in the 1970s and 1980s. “As you can imagine, a lot of those studies are old,” Perkins said. Updates were done in the mid-2000s for the rest of the country, but the West Coast maps are being made later. “Both Grays Harbor and Pacific County are kind of going through that process process now, a little behind. Basically, the more rural communities are farther behind the big cities,” Perkins said.
The new flood map effort is two-fold. Maps will be modernized and put in digital format, and they will be updated, FEMA officials said. “We have a (draft) version not in effect yet,” he said. “Congress realized they really needed to update our coastal maps around the country.”
Before, maps were made using extrapolated data from the East and Gulf coasts, which are subject to hurricanes. Here on the West Coast, there are different concerns such as flood events, earthquakes and high tides. The measurements for the Pacific Coast may have been too conservative, Perkins said.
The new maps for the counties will “effectively be (an) overlay area photo (you can) see your house and everything,” said Kelly Stone, FEMA risk analyst.
“The biggest change is we can now use computers to map the coast,” Perkins added. “Back in the day, very simple techniques were used,” he said. Lidar, which uses laser light and is similar to radar, “shoots thousands of points of light” so “really precise topographical information” is gathered.
“Coastally, historically, we didn’t have a lot of specific stuff for the Pacific Northwest,” Perkins said. This time,“top coastal experts on the West Coast” performed work “completely geared toward the West and Northwest,” Perkins said.
As a result, the threshold for flood-level elevation may go down, Perkins said. For example, a flood level threshold of “21 to 22 feet might be more like 15 or 16 feet,” he said. “It’s highly variable” he cautioned. This could mean flood insurance requirements may cost less money for some property owners. How the flood plain may look in 50 years with climate and other possible changes should also be considered, Perkins cautioned.
The maps will also include the local tribal lands which were not involved in earlier efforts, said Stone.
FEMA also considers wind records, the directions the wind comes from, flood and tide records, “all the different combinations you can look at,” said Perkins. Michael J. Riedy, FEMA program specialist, estimates the team studied 150 of the region’s storms, including the historic December 2007 storm.
Coasts here are often rocky as opposed to sandy, so the analysis differs in that way, too. While much of the Harbor may notice improved flood plain characterizations, Westport may have more land rather than less in the higher risk zones because of anti-erosion walls that have caused more sand and silt to develop.
FEMA also partnered with DNR to do risk assessments on all the building information for the coastal counties, a loss estimation program that will include other potential loss, called the “hazus system” Stone said. “Hazus shows losses for earthquakes as well as floods,” she said.
New tsunami model updates have not been included as yet because a tsunami is more of a 500 year event rather than a 100 year event like a flood.
Flood maps help the region’s property owners undertake risk better, plan for mitigation more wisely and gain knowledge on what kinds of FEMA grants they may be eligible for, Stone said. The grants can possibly be used to elevate property, buyouts, culverts, or other flood mitigation strategies, she added.
Riedy, Perkins and Stone all stressed that FEMA recommends everyone think about purchasing flood insurance.
The FEMA map update cost more than $500,000 locally, Perkins estimated. Flooding is the most catestrophic hazard in the country and costs an average of $3 billion a year nationwide, FEMA statistics say.
Erin Hart, 360-537-3932, firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @DW_Erin