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Torrent of Worry: New Flood Maps Alarm Maine Communities
01/31/2014   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

New flood maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are continuing to cause heartburn for communities across the U.S., including many in Maine. The maps, which determine what areas are at risk for flooding and have a direct effect on insurance costs, could render some properties unaffordable for existing owners. On Thursday, the U.S. Senate approved a bill that would delay increases to flood insurance premiums. While some towns and property owners are breathing sighs of relief, opponents say the bill will perpetuate existing problems. Patty Wight reports.

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Creating a new flood map is a long, complicated process, says independent Sen. Angus King, that often results in inaccurate maps. That's why he, along with Republican Sen. Susan Collins, joined the overwhelming majority of lawmakers who approved a bill to address the issue.

"The bill that the Senate passed this week will delay the impending rate increases for people in Maine and across the country," King says, "and provide FEMA with additional time to engage with communities and individuals on better, more localized, data that will ultimately produce more precise maps."

In Maine, the community likely most affected by these flood maps is Scarborough. Town Manager Tom Hall says some property owners could face 10-fold increases in their insurance premiums as a result of FEMA flood maps he thinks are inaccurate.

"One of the things that really causes us reason to question their methodologies are that towns neighboring Scarborough presumably appear to be treated differently than Scarborough, and we, I think legitimately, want to know why," Hall says.

The town is paying $25,000 for an outside analysis, and is expecting to appeal at least two aspects of FEMA's flood map.
Bob Gerber, a senior engineer and geologist for Ransom Consulting is doing analyses for 20 Maine towns. One problem with FEMA's projections, he says is that some of the methodology was developed for the West Coast, which may not be applicable in the east. "I frankly think it's overcalculating - it's overestimating it."

And overestimating flood risk could lead to higher insurance premiums. Most flood insurance comes from the National Flood Insurance Program, which is more than $24 billion in debt after a barrage of damaging hurricanes, starting with Hurricane Katrina. A law passed in 2012 ended the program's federal subsidies for buildings in flood-prone areas and instituted rate increases.

Scarborough's Tom Hall says the program does need reform, but now is not the time. "Just the coincidence of having the change in the National Flood Insurance Program, that's been around for decades, happen simultaneously with potentially massive changes to flood map designations is just too much to expect to implement all at the same time," Hall says.

But the Union of Concerned Scientists thinks the U.S. Senate made a mistake when it supported a bill to delay rate increases for four years. Rachel Cleetus is a Senior Climate Economist.

"This is a tremendous burden for the taxpayer in general, and it's clearly unsustainable," Cleetus says. "So the question is, how are we going to do things differently both to protect local communities, as well as protect the taxpayer in general?"

Cleetus agrees that the flood maps are flawed, but she says it's because they don't go far enough. She says they account for historical sea level rise, not future projections. As for insurance, Cleetus thinks there should be a proactive compromise bill.

"One is a slower phase-in of premium increases, the other is targeted assistance for low income and fixed income households," Cleetus says. "I think those are right on the top of the list of things that need to happen right away."

Otherwise, Cleetus says, when the next damaging weather event hits, the U.S. will be in the same place. It's unclear when the bill will land in the U.S. House, but Democrat Chellie Pingree says she supports it as is.

"I understand, and I think we all know that there's more flooding, more unusual weather, and there are many locations where people are building houses in places they shouldn't," Pingree says. "But this is affecting long-standing communities that have been built in certain places in Maine for generations and making them completely unaffordable."

Pingree says it will take about four years for FEMA to figure out how to address affordability issues.



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