2017-09-08 / Front Page

City set to join appeal of FEMA flood maps

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — With the havoc of Hurricane Harvey on all minds, and the spectre of Irma still on the horizon, the South Portland City Council has signaled its intent to join a multi-municipality appeal of new flood maps prepared by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which show an increased risk to some coastal and riverfront properties. The council was slated to vote Sept. 6 on whether or not to join a protest of the maps spearheaded by Ransom Consulting Engineers of Portland. That meeting took place after the deadline for this week’s Sentry. However, at an Aug. 30 workshop session on the topic, six of the seven council members said they planned on voting to join in the appeal. Only District 3 councilor Eben Rose opposed that prospect.

Preparing for a tidal mess, rather than trying to shut down the messenger, should be the city’s response to the new maps, he said.

“The current conditions in Texas should tell you a little bit about erring on the side of caution,” Rose said.

Rose claimed city hall “got everyone all ginned up thinking FEMA is the enemy,” by sending 454 notices of the Aug. 30 workshop to residents whose risk assessment may have changed since the last FEMA flood maps were drawn up in 1984.

“Only 25 of those properties have a reasonable chance of even being included in the appeal,” Rose told an audience of about 30 people gathered for the Aug. 30 workshop. “I’m not saying we should abandon them,” he said. “I’m saying we should support them, but support them through mitigation means. I think we do have an obligation to protect our citizens. But hopefully, all of you here tonight are worried about the real risks, and are not just thinking that FEMA is the risk.”

Still, the kickback against FEMA has been almost continual since the agency first began efforts to update its mid-1980s delineation of the high-water mark in a so-called 100-year storm – not technically the kind of storm that comes along once in a century, but the kind of storm that has a 1 percent chance of being followed up in subsequent years by one of equal or greater ferocity. FEMA is now on the fourth iteration of its new maps since 2009, and Ransom has led the charge at each stage. It has argued against the computer modeling used by FEMA that, at the onset, showed some homes once listed as 50 feet above the floor plain well below the new inundation line.

FEMA maps assess both the potential vertical rise of ocean swells at the shore, but also “run-up” – how far a wave may travel vertically as it interacts with land in low-lying and marsh areas – and Ransom argued the numbers were seriously botched, particularly on the run-up calculations. It’s most recent effort was bolstered by the fact that FEMA had to acknowledged discrepancies caused by different mapping software used in 2009 and 2013. In the most recent version, released this past April, maps show high water marks rising between 16 and 18 feet above the 1984 prediction in the Loveitt’s Field neighborhood, according to City Planner Tex Haeuser, who added at an Aug. 7 council meeting that the maps also now show flood waters extending “pretty far inland” at Willard Beach.

“That’s quite a rise,” he said, adding that significant changes also are predicted to occur in the area of Spring Point, based on new wind velocity calculations. The maps are important not just because they help state and city officials manage land use regulations. They also are a main determining factor in premiums set by the National Flood Insurance Rate Program, required of all homeowners carrying a federally backed mortgage. Ransom has said that being even one foot above the flood plain can save homeowners more than $2,100 per year on insurance, based on a building valued at $250,000. It also has said that locating a home within the 100-year flood line can lower its value by as much as 7.8 percent, while the combined reductions of affected homes could lower South Portland’s annual assessment by as much as 1.8 percent. To date, Harpswell, Kennebunkport, Kittery and Wells have all joined Ransom’s formal rebuttal of most recent FEMA flood maps. Saco and Scarborough declined to take part, although Scarborough has elected to file its own protest based on FEMA’s calculations for marshland inundations. Biddeford, Kennebunk and Portland have reportedly all reviewed Ransom’s proposal, but remain on the fence. Joining the appeal will cost South Portland at least $35,000 according to the contract circulated by Ransom. That would pay for “Phase I” of the protest, in which Ransom will review FEMA’s calculations. According to City Manager Scott Morelli, if the three maybes do decide to join in, the cost could drop to $23,000. Then the actual protest itself would take place as part of Phase II of Ransom’s proposal, Morelli said. That would include a closer look at the flood lines in South Portland specifically, at an additional outlay of between $20,000 and $48,000.

“I’m not here to tell you you can hire us and we can reduce your flood insurance rates, or reduce your base flood elevations, or we can reduce your flood zones. That’s not what our objective is here,” Ransom Project Manager Nathan Dill told the council at the Aug. 30 workshop. “What we are offering to South Portland is a second opinion on what the flood risk is and how it should be mapped.”

Dill said Ransom would do that by employing “the exact same” modeling methodology used by FEMA along the entire eastern seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico, “except for New England.” Dill said FEMA also has eschewed more robust and recent modeling developed by the Army Corps of Engineers in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The reason for that, he said, is twofold. On one hand, the current New England mapping project was launched before those more recent technologies came online. And secondly, the models are always compared to historical records anyway, to see if what is predicted to happen matches at all what has happened. New England, Dill noted, has storm surge data going back farther than anywhere else in the country. FEMA’s logic then, is to rely on the records more heavily than any computer simulations, he said. And when in doubt, FEMA tends to err on the side of caution.

“They don’t want to underestimate the risk. So, they shoot high,” Dill said. “Our experience is that when you use the more advanced methodology, you tend to get lower wave setup numbers.”

Still, Rose was not prepared to throw the federal data out with the stormwater.

“What FEMA does is very open,” he said. “They are not a buch of dogmatic bureaucrats who close their ears to good science. I think that’s how this has been presented and it’s shameful, because we are not necessarily the arbiters of good science here. But it’s been portrayed to us as dirty mop water and that’s a shame.” “What we have here is an exploratory model that FEMA might not accept,” Rose said. “It’s shocking to me that this was brought forward as Ransom: Good science vs. FEMA: Bad science.”

According to Haeuser and City Assessor Jim Thomas, 224 parcels in South Portland that range from empty lots to condominium complexes are impacted by the new maps, with about half (109) now listed in a higher risk zone, or subject to a higher base flood elevation.

By comparison, as of June 30, 2017, there were 122 flood insurance policies in South Portland, paying $75.560 annually in flood insurance to cover $34.4 million in property value.

Councilor Linda Cohen said she and her peers had received emails claiming the issue only affects wealthy residents who can afford ocean views. These letters asked the council not to use taxpayer money to fight legal battles for the 1 percent. However, Cohen said if these waterfront homes decrease in value due to the new flood zone data, that would shift more of the annual tax burden to median homeowners.

“Having your property in a flood zone can make the difference between somebody making an offer on your home and walking away. I’ve seen it happen lots of times,” she said. “So, I want to make sure those maps are as accurate as they possibly can be. I also want to make sure we are not arbitrarily putting restrictions on people that will price them right out of being able to buy a home. And I can tell you, just a few dollars can put somebody right out of a mortgage. And that could be the flood insurance they shouldn’t have had to pay for. “What good are we as a government if we are not willing to help our people when they need it,” Cohen asked, rhetorically.

Rose said taking steps to guard against the ravages of a coastal flood event, rather than merely trying to beat down the cost of insurance coverage for any such happenstance, should be the city’s primary goal, whether it jumps on the Ransom bandwagon or not.

Mayor Patti Smith said that kind of work might be beyond the capabilities of South Portland’s office of planning and development.

“Our planning and code (enforcement) office is not the most robust, as I’ve seen in other communities,” she said. “I’m not sure they are prepared to take on modeling of this nature.” Haeuser, meanwhile, said any local work of that nature would necessarily need to be more comprehensive than even Rose had envisioned. “In order to do this kind of planning, we do need, I think, more data than we have,” he said. “ I think we want to ask ourselves, where is the 200-year flood line?”

Data points

To check and see whether your property has been listed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as laying within the 100-year flood zone, enter your address into the the mapping tool found online at https://msc.fema.gov/ portal.

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