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by Scott Shambach

Most of us can remember the devastation of Hurricane Katrina as it bore down and utterly destroyed New Orleans in August 2005.  We were shocked at much of the news footage of a city underwater and the inability of humanity to manage the force of such a monster storm.  Our compassion rose and donations poured in while masses of people converged to assist those who lost everything they owned, some even loss of life.

As usual, after the storm, the analysis began.  Why did this happen?  What went wrong?  What went right?  And of course, the political spectrum exploded.  This post is not about a position on the political spectrum.  However, it is related to the results of the debate.

I must be honest.  As I sit in front of my computer, comfortably in my home nestled on top of a high wooded ridge, I do not think for a second about the possibility of my house being flooded.  It was a primary criterion for finding my building lot because every other house I previously lived in required a sump pump and I was having no more of that.  So, when I heard that they were going to rebuild New Orleans even though it was situated below sea level I was astounded.  Why?  Yes, there are reasons both personal and economical.  But still, why would you want to?

Politically, decisions were made regarding the outlay of funds used to build in flood prone areas.  They effected the lending institutions which were required to force owners to obtain flood insurance.  If you build in a flood prone area, you need flood insurance.  Makes sense, right?  Well yes, but we will leave this path to other discussions.  There is a larger problem that arose from the implementation of this decision.

If you have a mortgage, desire to take out a mortgage or a home equity loan, the lending institution must check to determine whether you are in a 100 year floodplain.  Where does this information ultimately come from.  FEMA Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRM).  The lending institution’s decision is black and white.  Are you in the flood plain, yes or no.  There could be discussion on the accuracy of the decision based on the readability of the FIRM.  Other than that, there is no lee way for the lending institution due to Federal requirements.

One of the problems is with the FIRM itself.  They are produced by FEMA.  FEMA is out of money.  FIRMs are costly to develop.  Therefore, urbanized areas are prioritized.  Base Flood Elevations (BFE) are established based on flood modeling and it can determined what elevation above sea level the flood waters will reach.  These are known as located in Flood Zone AE or a flood zone with elevations, hence the “E”.  Surveys can be conducted from verifiable data exactly where that BFE will be in relation to your property.  See the blog post on Elevation Certificates Explained.

But what about those rural areas that are not prioritized for a detailed study to determine a BFE?  They are shown in what is known as a Flood Zone A.  A Flood Zone A is defined as an “approximation” of the flood zone without a detailed study.  They were a necessity for implementation of the FIRM without the time and expense of analyzing each and every drainage area within the flood maps coverage area.  Ok, I get that.  The problem is how closely they were approximated.

I liken the implementation of the Zone A mapping to the use of a paint brush.  If FEMA determined that a drainage area was large enough to cause flood damage, an approximation was warranted.  To show this area, and on a limited time and financial budget, they used their “paint brush” to draw that all important limit upstream.  Herein lays a major problem.  Instead of using an artist’s paint brush, they used a four-inch paint brush better suited for painting a barn or a shed.  Not only did some of those lines get painted erroneously, some were painted ridiculously.

So, like me, in 2005 you may well have been saying, “Why would you build in an area that is going to be flooded?”  One day you want to borrow money and your lender tells you that you need flood insurance because you live in an area that is going to be flooded.  Your lender has a face so your immediate reaction may be directed there.  But remember, the lender’s statement is based on black and white information.  Are you shown in a Flood Zone A or AE?

What can you do?  Unlike the criminal justice system where you are innocent until proven guilty, in this scenario you are guilty until proven innocent.  FEMA recognized that there are areas of their approximations that were mapped as being in a flood zone that should not have.  As a result, they also provided a means for determining the accuracy of their approximation.  You must remember, however, that some approximations are also correct.  But if your structure is located significantly higher than a small stream next to it, you may begin to wonder, especially if the “other side” is much lower than your side.  You must also realize that even though you may have built your house forty years ago and you never had water, the same may not be true for today.  Remember that we are talking about what is referred to as a 100-year flood (although that term is misunderstood) and changes have occurred which may have effected the flooding since the last “Big One”.

Here is where Meck-Tech, Inc. can come into the picture.  If you are in Zone A, you can choose to have an Elevation Certificate for Zone A without elevations completed and pay the flood insurance premium.  If you honestly believe you are too close to the creek and you have experienced or expect to experience flooding, this may be your only option.  However, if you suspect that the flood waters would not reach your structure, Meck-Tech can assess your situation and provide the necessary documentation to have your structure removed from that zone through a Letter of Map Amendment whereby you would no longer be required to purchase flood insurance.  If you are required to purchase flood insurance and your rates are extremely high because the degree of flooding is unknown, Meck-Tech can also establish a BFE to quantify the depth of flooding which may reduce your premium.

Every situation is different as each flood event is different.  If you want more information, contact us and there may be a remedy for the situation you find yourself in.