October 24, 2014
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CRMC claims flood maps underestimate real conditions

Do the flood maps developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency provide a good picture of what Rhode Island could expect in a severe hurricane?

Grover Fugate, executive director of the Coastal Resources Management Council, believes not.

He says outmoded methods were used to produce the maps and claims FEMA did not follow the letter of the law in developing the maps. He has called on FEMA to review the process. So far he hasn’t gotten an answer to his request that goes back to last summer.

Fugate believes some coastal areas would be far more severely affected than the maps indicate, while some bay areas may actually be better off than what the maps have forecast. From his review, however, most sections of Warwick would be harder hit than the maps suggest.

Apart from giving residents an understanding of the dangers they could face from storm surges, the maps play an important role in determining the cost of flood insurance. Flood insurance is required of those with home mortgages within flood zones. Insurance premiums are based on the zone where a property is located and its elevation relative to the base flood elevation. The higher the first living level is from the base flood elevation, the cheaper the premium. New construction within flood zones is required to be above flood elevation. Renovations can be made to existing buildings, including elevating them, to minimize flooding and reduce insurance costs.

But cost is relative. And since enactment of the Biggerts-Waters Act in October, which removes federal subsidies in some cases and phases it out for others, some premiums for the maximum coverage of $250,000 have shot into the stratosphere. Susan Arnold, CEO and general counsel of the Rhode Island Association of Realtors, knows of premiums of $50,000 and $60,000 a year. In Warwick, the Beacon has learned of premiums jumping from about $5,000 a year to $10,000 and as high as $32,000.

Arnold says the situation is bad enough without having FEMA redraw the maps and putting more properties in flood zones. Already, the market has seen the effects of costly flood insurance, making some properties virtually unmarketable and causing some buyers to back out of agreements.

Fugate is sympathetic to the issue and suggests the state and municipalities could help by providing tax credits for efforts to mitigate floods. Essentially, this would consist of elevating housing, which he says would have the effect of reducing insurance premiums while stimulating the economy by creating construction jobs. Tax credits, he said, would provide an incentive.

But Fugate’s basic concern is that the FEMA maps released within the last six months were modeled on assumptions that weren’t reflective of conditions. He said methodology from the 1970s was used in generating the maps when FEMA used systems developed in the 1990s to draw maps for other parts of the country. In many cases the maps underestimate the impact of storms. He said calculations are that dunes along beaches in Washington County could break wave action when in reality some of those dunes have already been swept away. He said experience has shown dunes believed to offer a protective barrier disappeared within two hours of a storm like Super Sandy.

Fugate believes the maps would have been more accurate had they been based on flood elevations reached during the 1938 hurricane that swept Conimicut and Riverview houses into the bay and inundated most of Oakland Beach. He suggested the storm surge of 1938 should have been used in modeling for potential impacts of today.

In an Aug. 26, 2013 letter to FEMA acting regional director Paul Ford, Fugate expressed his concern with the models used for the preliminary flood insurance rate maps for Rhode Island. He said it is CRMC’s position that the rate maps underestimate the flooding potential and risk.

There’s more to this than a suggestion.

In his letter, Fugate notes that CRMC has federal consistency review authority by law and therefore FEMA must obtain a federal consistency determination from CRMC for the maps by county. The deadline for Kent County was Sept. 18, 2013, which has come and gone, and that the consistency determinations be obtained by the state at least 90 days before final approval by FEMA.


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