Original FEMA flood map for Portland
About a year ago, FEMA issued a draft map (above) which re-classified the waterfront from an A-zone to a V-zone, meaning it's considered much more prone to flooding than previously thought.
Speaking at a press conference at Union Wharf on Portland's waterfront, the City's planning director Penny Littell explains. "Originally the proposal by FEMA was for a high velocity zone here in the harbor which would essentially have limited any new development or significant rehabilitation of existing buildings, to lobster or fishing shacks."
It also means that insurance rates would be significantly higher for owners of waterfront property. Local business leaders say they were discouraged after their first meeting with FEMA officials last year, says Charlie Poole, who owns Union Wharf.
"Myself, Steve DiMillo, Dick Ingalls, and several others were at the first meeting that Penny invited us to when FEMA came to town, and when we walked out of that meeting, you really felt like our goose was cooked, that we were going to be forced into this V-zone, which was going to place an unbelievable economic hardship that we probably could not overcome," Poole says.
Poole says Portland's working piers have stood the test of time, and many of them are hundreds of years old. "The one you're on today is 217 years old, and has been operating every year since 1793, and never has had the conditions that FEMA was trying to place our harbor in."
FEMA's revised flood map for Portland
Planning Director Penny Littell says after many months of discussions, and meetings in Portland, Boston and Washington D.C., FEMA was persuaded by the city of Portland, with the support of Maine's congressional delegation, to revert to its initial A-zone classification, "which although has certain requirements for any new building or rehabilitation, does not, in fact, limit the uses that are allowed on the piers."
In addition to causing economic hardships, Portland officials say FEMA's 2009 assessment was also unfair because it was based on inadequate data, much of it using information regarding factors like wind speed and wave action that was not specific to the harbor area.
So, they hired an independent engineering consultant to come up with what they say is a more accurate model. FEMA took note, and duly changed its mind on the matter, says agency spokesman Dennis Pinkham. "They hired a consulting firm who did a very, very detailed analysis, and then they ran some modeling, and FEMA reviewed the engineering firm's data and conclusions, and agreed with them."
City manager Joe Gray did not disclose exactly how much that study cost the city, but he says the expense was worth it. "It was money well spent, given what was the other possible outcome."
The revised flood map for Portland is now subject to a 30-day comment period, and a further 90-day period for appeals to be made.
FEMA is currently less than half way through a huge billion dollar-plus effort to remap the U.S. coastline using updated technology to more accurately predict flood risks. Portland is the first New England coastal city to be re-assessed, and Joe Gray thinks other cities will have been paying close attention to events in Maine, as they await the attention of FEMA's mapping experts.
"That was one of the concerns that we had -- not only the impact it would have on a working waterfront like Portland, but other working waterfronts in New England, the Providences, the Newhavens, the Bostons."
The lesson to be learned from Portland's experience, he says, is that towns with working waterfronts have to stay on top of the situation and be prepared to spend money to fight their corner.