No one particularly wants to live in a flood zone. But deciding just where that zone lies and how great the risk is has been an ongoing struggle, both for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that creates the nation’s flood maps and for the homeowners who sometimes dispute FEMA’s designations.
We’ve written in Stormwater magazine about flood insurance and FEMA’s flood maps, and many other articles have been published on property owners’ objections to having their homes or businesses mapped into a high-flood-risk zone. Designated high-risk properties that have federally backed mortgages are required to carry flood insurance, which is expensive, and owners often believe that a high-risk designation lowers the value of their property. That’s often true for a couple of reasons—first, of course, potential buyers don’t want to buy an at-risk house, and second, the cost of the insurance premiums might make the home unaffordable. On the other hand, FEMA has been criticized in the past for being too lenient—that is, for not declaring certain at-risk areas as being in flood zones, leading people to believe, wrongly, that they’re not in any danger.
This drama is playing out right now in Montecito, CA, the coastal community that was hit by the Thomas Fire—the largest wildfire in the state’s history—followed in January of this year by devastating mudslides that destroyed more than 100 homes and killed 23 people. FEMA has just released “flood advisory recovery maps” to help residents make decisions about rebuilding their homes and about future development. The floods and debris flows in January significantly changed the topography of the area, and these new maps attempt to delineate what are now high-hazard areas—those that are expected to be inundated during a 100-year flood—as well as expected water depths during such an event.
The agency emphasizes, however, that the new maps are not flood insurance maps. Those will take longer—up to four or five years—to be issued; until then the existing pre-mudslide flood insurance maps will remain in place. For now, the new FEMA maps indicate minimum elevations for rebuilding. The California Geological Survey will also be releasing a set of maps reflecting the new conditions.
Even though these are not official flood insurance maps, and despite January’s events, some residents attending a public meeting at which the maps were unveiled think they’re too stringent. “I think you’re doing a disservice to the collective taxpayers of Santa Barbara County because I do honestly believe this map is going to have significant impacts to values of properties in [high-risk] areas, and I don’t think it’s reflective of reality,” one resident said.
Have you been in a similar situation with a development project—or perhaps with your own property—in which you or another property owner disagreed with a FEMA decision?