Protecting People, Property and Our Way of Life
Flood maps will impact community
By: Xerxes Wilson, HoumaToday.com
June 14, 2015
Furor over flood insurance reform has temporarily subsided, but local officials continue to negotiate with FEMA to map the future of development in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes.
“It will determine the economic future of our community, not just people, the community,” said Windell Curole, head of the South Lafourche Levee District.
Curole is part of an advisory committee comprised of local government and flood protection officials and others working with the contractors who build the maps for FEMA in an effort toward accuracy.
Terrebonne and Lafourche are part of a pilot program along with 23 other communities, five of which are in Louisiana, developing more accurate mapping procedures though community collaboration.
Before the process started, both parishes appealed FEMA’s preliminary maps, saying they contain inaccurate elevation estimates and fail to account for levees and other flood control measures.
Those maps required elevations of about 14 feet in Golden Meadow and places like Montegut and nine feet near a recently built levee in Houma.
Local governments spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on technical consultation even before the collaborative program was announced.
“We need to reflect reality in planning. We have seen overstated flooding risk in some areas and understated flood risk in other places. Accurate maps leads to better decisions,” said Curole, who oversees a levee system that has spared south Lafourche from hurricane storm surges since the system was closed in the late 1980s.
Those levees are perhaps one of the largest points of contention for local officials who have blasted FEMA’s previous policies of ignoring local levees. The structures fail to meet standards required for Army Corps of Engineers certification but, local officials say, provide some level of flood protection.
Levees are increasingly a vital component of living close to the Gulf of Mexico. Terrebonne is spending hundreds of millions in local tax dollars on levees as it seeks billions from Congress to upgrade the Morganza hurricane protection system to repel larger storm surges.
Officials in both parishes acknowledge the levees are infallible and that a major hurricane could still result in serious and widespread damage to homes and businesses. But while the risk of flooding will always exist, the levees do provide some protection, they argue.
“A levee’s mere existence does impede the flow to some degree,” said Terrebonne Parish Manager Al Levron said.
FEMA has agreed to have the levees reflected in the maps, though it’s unclear to what extent. It’s a complicated process with questions like:
– Does the levee have to be built to a certain standard of engineering?
– Must it be armored to prevent scouring?
– Would there need to be engineering reports that verify a certain standard of soil composition?
– How bad would it flood inside the system if the levees are overtopped?
In addition, accurately plotting how a Gulf storm surge would roll through swamps and marshes is a highly complicated task, and local officials say FEMA has so far failed to come up with accurate models.
The first step is establishing benchmarks for elevation, which is difficult amid miles of open water, ancient ridges sinking land and eroding marshes between the Gulf and populated communities.
One problem is that FEMA’s computer models are mostly based on river flooding, which is far different than a moving hurricane with variable winds pushing water in different directions across the marsh, said North Lafourche Levee Director Dwayne Bourgeois, who has led the technical blitz on flood insurance issues in recent years.
It’s unclear how close to reality mappers can model. The local committee has met a few times, but the effort remains in its early days.
“Our goal is to make the models and the maps reflect reality. I don’t want to overestimate the problem or underestimate the risk. Just get it accurate,” Curole said. “I don’t know what the result is going to be. I don’t know if it is going to do a lot of good or little good.”
FEMA’s rules dictate the maps should be updated every five years, but before Katrina in 2005, local communities went nearly two decades without an update.
Meanwhile, the marshes and barrier islands that once buffered inland communities from storms have continued to erode, land has continued to sink and seas have risen. All of this has increased flooding at the same development of homes and businesses continues.
“Without mapping more frequently, in some cases you are understating the risk,” Levron said. “You have land loss, you have subsidence, and you are still using maps form 15 years ago. By the same token, if you have improved your levee system, you are overstating the risks.”
MAPS COST MONEY
Critics say one reason for the failure to accurately map communities here and across the country has been a lack of funding for such efforts.
Last year, the nonprofit investigative news agency Pro Publica reported that Congress had cut funding for updating flood maps by more than half since 2010, from $221 million down to $100 million.
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said FEMA’s current proposed budget decreases the amount budgeted for mapping by some $11 million, which he is pushing to restore.
“The very best process of mitigating the risk of flood and therefore the necessity for NFIP to pay claims would be an accurate map,” she said Friday during a flood insurance symposium in New Orleans.
‘THE TRUE RISK’
Currently, flood maps hold most sway over new construction, dictating how high a home or business must be elevated to get permits. But many in Congress still wish to tie current homeowners’ flood insurance costs to new maps as they are updated.
That means if a home was built to FEMA’s prescribed elevation in 1992, it could be found below the new benchmark on updated maps and be subjected to a so-called punitive flood insurance cost increase. Local officials fear such a change would devastate the local economy by sucking value from the local real estate market and tax base.
Congress is expected to renew debate over flood insurance costs when the program comes up for reauthorization in 2017.
Until then, local officials say getting flood maps that reflect reality is vital.
“If it reflects the true risk, you can have informed decisions about building,” Bourgeois said. “Then you can prevent flooding in the first place.”