By Jane Smith
FEMA has opened the final round of public appeals and comments on proposed changes to its Palm Beach County flood maps.
The 90-day period, which started Jan. 2, allows South County coastal communties to challenge the flood designations that affect their residents’ insurance rates.
The flood zone rating is important for homeowners with a mortgage. The Federal Emergency Management Agency last updated its county maps nearly 30 years ago.
In Ocean Ridge, town engineering staff is preparing documents to appeal the placement of 80 parcels in high-risk flood zones, according to Town Manager Ken Schenck.
“We’ll include details on our drainage program,” he said.
Last spring, Ocean Ridge had appealed proposed changes in the maps released in 2013 because they excluded only 140 properties from the high-risk flood zone when the town spent $10 million to improve drainage in its south end. Schenck thought another 50 to 100 properties should have been excluded. FEMA categorized a property as in a high-risk flood zone when only a corner of the parcel was in it, he said.
“Appeals must be based on technical data that show proposed maps to be scientifically or technically incorrect,” said Danon Lucas, FEMA spokesman. “A comment is an objection to a base map feature change or any other non-appealable change such as correcting the spelling of a street name.”
He did not want to speculate when FEMA would finish reviewing the appeals and when the maps would go into effect, but others say it could be December.
Delray Beach condo owner Nancy Schneider learned that homeowners need to know their property’s flood zone and standards used to determine elevation.
Under the old elevation standards from 1929, her Patio Beach condo building was not in a flood zone. But FEMA redid the elevation standards in 1988 to make them equitable for any property in the 48 contiguous states. As a result, Schneider’s condo is now in a flood zone.
The proposed change forced her to find a surveyor who would note the elevation of her building. She had to put a stop order on the surveyor’s charge on her credit card because his company used a mix of elevation standards.
She needed the survey to say the building was at least 6 feet above sea level, according to 1988 standards. It was 4.75 feet, she said after the survey was re-done. “We can’t raise it (the building) because it’s built on a slab,” Schneider said.
Flood zones and insurance is an important topic for South County coastal homeowners, said Andy Katz, vice president of the Beach Property Owners Association in Delray Beach. That group will discuss flood insurance changes at its semi-annual membership meeting on March 25 at the Northern Trust Bank building.
“We will discuss what to do if your property was downgraded from Zone X into Zone AE,” he said. “And what you can do if a corner of your property has the (higher risk) flood zone but not the house.”
The association will send a newsletter to its membership in early February explaining flood map changes. In the meantime, he urged coastal property owners to go to this county website to determine their property’s flood zone: maps.co.palm-beach.fl.us/gis/floodzones.aspx?
Flood insurance catapulted into the national arena after big payouts from Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy put the National Flood Insurance Program into $24 billion debt. Congress passed the Biggert-Waters Act in 2012 to help bring the flood insurance policies in line with the true risk. Homeowners living in high-risk zones would have seen policy premium increases as high as 25 percent until their policy premium reached full flood rates.
Last spring, rate relief went into effect for primary homeowners. Increases for flood insurance premiums were capped at 18 percent, although second home and business owners can see as much as a 25 percent increase.
FEMA has 7,730 flood insurance policies in six South County coastal communities that lie entirely on the barrier island. Of those policies, 77.3 percent are in a high-risk flood zone, according to the agency.
The current changes are based on rain events, not tidal flooding, said Dan Grippo, Boca Raton’s municipal services director. His city is confident that the FEMA flood map changes for the barrier island and Intracoastal area residents are about 90 percent accurate. He encourages residents to find out their property’s flood zone and proposed flood zone on the county website. The homeowner will need a survey to show the first floor is above 6 feet, according to the 1988 standard.
More worrisome for South County coastal homeowners is the FEMA coastal study that just started last fall to update the one done in 1996.
The study, expected to be ready in four to five years, is analyzing wave heights and surges, topographic maps, effects of sea walls and previous hurricane information (landfalls, wind speeds, rain amounts, etc.) along the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf Coast.