Sunday, May 15, 2011

Flooding may end the stalling for FEMA maps

Mike Fitzgerald in the Belleville News-Democrat (Illinois) covers an issue that’s going to keep arising – the unsoundness of building in flood-vulnerable areas. It’s going to be a farrago of corruption, wishful thinking and malfeasance as homeowners and politicians attempt to argue the risks away: Metro-east leaders have for years succeeded in playing for time when it came to new flood-hazard maps for Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties. With the help of federal lawmakers, they persuaded the Federal Emergency Management Agency again and again to push back deadlines for implementing the long-dreaded maps -- dreaded because they would sharply increase the number of property owners forced to buy flood insurance, as well as the cost of premiums to obtain it.

But now, with record floods overwhelming towns along the lower Mississippi River, it looks unlikely that FEMA -- and leaders of Congress -- will want to budge beyond the February deadline for the new flood maps. Such is the gloomy assessment of Les Sterman, the chief engineer for the Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District Council.

Faced with almost $18 billion in debt arising from Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in 2005, FEMA needs to rake in new revenue by extending the zones where property owners must buy federal flood insurance, according to Sterman.

"There are members of Congress who want it to stand on its own," said Sterman, who is overseeing the $130 million effort to rebuild the metro-east's levee system. "It can't do that without collecting more insurance premiums from other folks, particularly other folks like us who'll probably never flood."

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Springfield, disagreed with Sterman's assessment. In March, Durbin announced that FEMA had finally agreed to a request by Durbin and other senators to recognize the existence of flood-protection levees in the metro-east and elsewhere nationwide.

…For Durbin, the issue of flood insurance represents a swinging political tight rope. On one hand, Durbin realizes the new FEMA flood maps are extremely unpopular. Government and business leaders predict they could trigger economic calamity for 150,000 American Bottoms property owners in the region, many of whom live in some of the state's poorest neighborhoods.

Sharply higher insurance premiums would force many to leave the area, while stifling badly needed economic development. But Durbin has also grown worried about the increased frequency of 100- and 500-year flood events brought on by climate change, according to Mulka. Durbin "wants to make sure that areas are prepared, whether that means protecting yourself with flood insurance or upgrading the levees," Mulka said....

An aerial view of Alton in Madison County, Illinois, taken June 20, 2008, shows flooding of the Mississippi River. US Air Force photo

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