Milton-Freewater among towns upset with new federal flood maps

FEMA's maps spell trouble for city residents seeking flood insurance.

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MILTON-FREEWATER -- New federal flood maps aren't riding a wave a popularity here.

Produced for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the maps are part of a $200 million-per-year effort to update and digitize the nation's flood plain maps. But county and city officials are crying foul over inaccuracies they say will cost residents dearly when it comes to buying flood insurance.

At a public meeting in April that drew more than 160 people, Milton-Freewater residents got their first look at the proposed new maps, which now show the possibility of shallow flooding in most of the city and some outlying areas. The changes will require many people to acquire flood insurance and will significantly impact the premiums they will be expected to pay.

In Milton-Freewater, the changes were caused by the de-certification of the levees along the Walla Walla River by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which happened in 2008 after bond issues to raise money to fix deficiencies in the levees failed. By coincidence, this occurred at the same time the flood map modernization project got underway and the result is that "FEMA looked at (the city) as if the levees aren't there at all," said Linda Hall, Milton-Freewater city manager.

According to a recent Associated Press article, Milton-Freewater isn't the only community dissatisfied with the new FEMA maps. Civic leaders, developers and home owners in several states have complained that the new maps are riddled with inaccuracies, seem arbitrarily drawn, and will stifle growth and hurt property values.

"I don't know if this makes me feel better or worse to know that we are not alone with this outrageously erroneous floodplain map of our city," Hall said.

Unlike some cities, the Milton-Freewater City Council has chosen to appeal to FEMA on behalf of the citizens rather than make residents stage their own appeals, Hall said.

The city has made some progress. "It bought some time to get the levees fixed and also help delay the time before the city is mandated to adopt the maps," she said. The city is also pressing FEMA for a written promise that as soon as the levees are repaired and reaccredited, it would remove the city from the floodplain maps entirely.

City officials have also "brokered a deal with FEMA that will allow our citizens that do have to pay for flood insurance to buy it at a hugely reduced and discounted rate. For example, the owner of a 2,500 square-foot home would normally pay around $2,500 to $3,750 a year for flood insurance, depending upon crawl spaces, basements, etc. Under the 'preferred policy' program that same policy would cost between $150 to $300 a year for the same coverage."

In Iowa, Kansas and elsewhere the new maps are also causing consternation.

"Anyone building new construction, they are probably not going to settle here," said Mayor Benita Grooms about FEMA's proposed map for her town of Oakville, Iowa. "Why would they if they have to build their homes up so high and pay $2,000 for flood insurance?"

Garden City, Kan., has sued to prevent FEMA's proposed map for the city from taking effect. The map for the first time designates areas around two decades-old drainage ditches as flood prone, even though the ditches have never been a problem, said Kaleb Kentner, the city's community development director.

Should their challenge fail, the redistricting would force nearly 2,000 homes and businesses into a flood plain and force property owners to buy expensive flood plain insurance, Kentner said.

The proposed digital maps for Linn County, Iowa, are almost unrecognizable, said county planning and zoning director Les Beck. There is a stream that appears on aerial maps that isn't in the same place on the new digital maps, he said.

"You overlay the maps and it's just not the same," Beck said. "It's in a different location.

Josh deBerge, a FEMA spokesman based in Kansas City, Mo., said there are few substantial changes in the new FEMA maps, and that any major changes were made because advances in mapping technology allowed for better analysis.

"When home and business-owners know and understand their risk, they are more likely to take steps to reduce their risk," deBerge said.

FEMA welcomes criticism of the digital maps and is open to making changes if a compelling scientific case can be made, he said.

"What we're looking for is evidence, a study or survey that would provide more detailed information that can be incorporated," deBerge told the Associated Press.

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318. Check out his blog at blogs.ublabs.org/randomthoughts.

Levee history

  • Early 1950s -- Built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Milton-Freewater Water Control Project encompasses just under eight miles of levees to protect the city of Milton-Freewater and surrounding areas.

  • 2007 -- Inspections by Corps engineers identify areas that need to be corrected to remove an "at-risk" designation for the levees. These are repair of a riprap slope and levee toe downstream of the Nursery Bridge, erosion of the stilling basin and drop structure below Nursery Bridge and erosion of the levee toe of the Couse Creek Road Bridge. A bond issue proposed by the water control district to raise money for the repairs fails to pass.

  • 2008 -- A second bond issue to raise $1.5 million for the repairs also fails.

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