Local Officials Concerned About FEMA Flood Maps

Government leaders in the western communities are taking issue with new flood maps created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that show most of The Acreage, Loxahatchee Groves, Royal Palm Beach and Wellington would be underwater after a 100-year rainstorm.

Royal Palm Beach Councilman David Swift said he attended the Western Communities Council meeting May 30, where Palm Beach County Water Resources Manager Ken Todd gave a presentation on the C-51 Reservoir Project and the new FEMA maps.

“Basically, the new maps show that during a 100-year storm event, almost all of The Acreage, Wellington, a large portion of Royal Palm Beach and Loxahatchee Groves would be flooded,” Swift said. “I’ve lived here 35 years, and I think I’ve experienced something very close to a 100-year event three times. My understanding of where it floods in Royal Palm Beach is not shown on those maps.”

Swift said there are some issues concerning the data that FEMA used, especially about its modeling and its assumptions.

“We agreed at the meeting to share our data of elevations here in the village and try to come up with a comprehensive map for The Acreage and for Loxahatchee Groves, for Wellington and all the western communities that’s verified,” he added.

Swift said the new maps are important to the average citizen because they could cause the amount paid for flood insurance to increase from $150 a year to perhaps as a high as $800.

“That’s why the maps need to be accurate, because the national flood insurance rate is based on those maps,” Swift said. “The western communities are working together to better define that map.”

Wellington Deputy Village Manager John Bonde said a contractor from out of state was hired by FEMA more than a decade ago to create new flood insurance maps.

“They’re called FIRM — that’s Flood Insurance Rate Maps,” Bonde told the Town-Crier Monday. “We were expecting these new maps to come out 13 years ago. Well, the first round of the maps came out last week. The maps show the new flood zone areas. They are very preliminary maps; they are not the final maps. They could be modified, changed a number of ways before they are adopted. They probably won’t go into effect at least for another 12 months.”

Bonde said there is a 30-day comment period on boundaries and names, and a 90-day comment period on modeling features such as pump stations, assumptions and elevations during which engineers for the local entities look at the data to determine whether they actually agree with the FEMA modeling.

“A number of people have already begun questioning some of the assumptions and some of the features because the [FEMA consultants] are not familiar with the local systems here,” Bonde said. “Local stormwater engineers are looking at it now, since they just got it last week.”

Local engineers will soon be making comments and appeals on the maps, Bonde said. “Right now, engineers are looking at it to determine what rational comments they want to make and what, if any, appeals they want to make, because you are allowed to do both,” he said. “The idea being that nobody’s perfect, and these maps may be imperfect.”

Bonde said Wellington has hired a consultant who is familiar with the village’s Acme Improvement District, which oversees drainage.

Explaining that he prefers to use a 1 percent chance of flooding, rather than a 100-year event, Bonde said, “If you get a 1 percent chance or greater, then you’re in a flood zone, an area of special risk, they call it. If you have less than a 1 percent chance, you are not required to have flood insurance.”

The flood map changes are largely driven by the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, which sets new policies for flood insurance. “The federal government has been subsidizing flood insurance and recovery efforts for many, many years,” Bonde said.

He explained that FEMA is several billion dollars in arrears and that the law requires the federal flood insurance program be financially sound.

“People with premiums are going to see significant increases in those premiums just as a result of the 2012 legislation,” Bonde said. “It was off of a lot of people’s radar. Insiders knew this was going on because the federal government is scrambling to close the gap on its deficits, and this is one of those areas that they felt they needed to do something about, so they passed this law.”

Bonde noted that no homes in Wellington were flooded during Tropical Storm Isaac in August 2012, which dumped 15 to 18 inches of rain on the western communities, causing canals to breach and streets to flood, but little actual flooding of homes. He pointed out that FEMA came to Wellington after Isaac and inspected homes whose owners claimed flood damage, but none was found.

“There were homes where there were leaks because of wind-driven rain, but that’s not flooding, where the elevation of the water got to the finished floor elevation,” he said.

Indian Trail Improvement District Supervisor Michelle Damone, who heads the Western Communities Council, said only one home in The Acreage was flooded during Isaac, although streets and yards were underwater for a week or more in some areas.

“Right now, the FEMA maps are showing all of The Acreage in the flood zone, which would probably mean about a $600 increase per house in their insurance,” Damone said. “For some homes, it could be higher than that.”

She said that the flooding of that one home during Isaac was due to a faulty home pad elevation.

“We can prove that in a 100-year storm, our homes are not flooded,” Damone said. “But if we’re in a FEMA flood zone, we’re forced to have flood insurance.”

Damone said the Palm Beach County League of Cities has hired a consultant to study the maps.

“The Western Communities Council collectively believes that representing all of the western communities, we could work together and utilize Tropical Storm Isaac as an example of this,” she said. “Even though we were under 18-and-a-half inches of rain, our roads and canals were flooded, but our homes were not.”

Mark Kutney, town manager of Loxahatchee Groves, which had about a dozen homes flood during Isaac, said he has attended several meetings so far on the new maps, including the Western Communities Council, League of Cities and a FEMA conference call along with Loxahatchee Groves Water Control District Administrator Steven Yohe.

“They gave us a preliminary map at the League of Cities meeting,” Kutney said. “When I saw our map, it was very alarming because most of the town is in a flood zone now and it wasn’t previously.”

FEMA representatives told Kutney it will schedule public hearings on the maps in about six months.

“The League of Cities is probably going to do some sort of consortium, but each city is going to be required to have its own engineers take a look at the hydrology and look at the maps, and that’s why I’m very happy that we’re in the process of getting our own engineering consultants on board to assist us with this project,” Kutney said.

He estimated that 85 percent to 90 percent of Loxahatchee Groves would be put in the flood zone if the new maps are approved unchanged.

“That means that folks will have to pay for flood insurance, and it also means that we will have to look at flood plain regulations as it relates to waterproofing structures and things that go along with being in the flood zone,” Kutney said. “We don’t have anything like that as of right now.”