Eight years after Federal Emergency Management Agency officials advised Calaveras County leaders to adopt flood maps that proved to be wildly inaccurate, the federal agency says it is on the verge of correcting its error.
FEMA spokeswoman Olivia Humilde said in an email Friday that 30 out of 34 flood map panels covering Calaveras County are in their final months of revision and should be released for review and comment by property owners this fall.
She said the revisions are being done “with the best available data to include the latest LiDAR, hydrologic and hydraulic analyisis.”
LiDAR stands for an imaging system similar to radar that uses the light of a laser.
She said that FEMA, working with county officials, conducted two different studies. One, including four map panels, takes in the Cosgrove Creek area in Valley Springs, a perennial flooding hot spot. The other study includes 26 map panels that take in most of the private property in the rest of Calaveras County.
The trouble began in 2008, when federal officials urged Calaveras County leaders to use California Department of Water Resources floodplain awareness maps as the basis for revised flood insurance rate maps for the county. The state maps and the resulting flood insurance rate maps proved inaccurate. Many property owners reported that the maps incorrectly showed their homes to be in stream beds or in flood areas when, in fact, the homes were far above water level.
After years of fruitless informal negotiations with FEMA, the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors in November 2014 sent a letter to Karen Armes, the acting regional administrator for FEMA, asking that the agency correct the maps using better data from LiDAR images taken from airplanes in 2013. FEMA officials relented and agreed to do so.
Calaveras was the only county in California that accepted FEMA’s advice and used the state flood awareness maps for updating its flood insurance rate maps. The maps matter because property buyers cannot obtain mortgages without getting flood insurance if the maps show that a property is at risk. In some cases, property owners only learned of the revised maps when they tried to sell and buyers balked after learning of the flood map issue.
One of those sellers is Derek Bray, who owned a lodge and some other buildings in Tamarack at the time the new maps went into effect. A pending sale of a house fell through in 2013 because of the maps, he said. He finally sold the house in 2015 “at a significantly lower price partly due to the fact that potential buyers seemed to be scared away by the potential for flood insurance requirements,” Bray wrote in an email.
Bray said he also went to the expense of hiring an engineer to provide more accurate data to FEMA and succeeded in getting the map for the Lodge he owns modified. Yet he says there are still inaccuracies in maps for properties he owns in Tamarack. And he isn’t confident the LiDAR data will fix all the problems.
“I have several times suggested, both to FEMA and the county, that the only way to get accurate flood maps in most of the higher elevations of the County would be by feet-on-the-ground surveying. This is what FEMA requires for anyone to file a (letter of map amendment) to contest their inaccurate maps. Sure it’s expensive but it’s the only way this can be resolved,” Bray said.
Property owners pay out of pocket if they need to hire an engineer or surveyor to challenge inaccuracies in a FEMA map. Once the revised maps are released this fall, property owners will have 120 days to submit technical information through the Calaveras County Planning Department. FEMA will also accept nontechnical comments on the maps.
Bray notes that the maps went into effect by 2010 and that by 2012, numerous statements and filings by property owners should have made it clear to FEMA that there were problems with the Calaveras County flood insurance rate maps.
Bray said that if the LiDAR data proves inaccurate, property owners may still be stuck paying the cost to hire a boots-on-the-ground engineer or surveyor to get the correct data. Yet officials for both FEMA and Calaveras County clearly hope to avoid that.
The 2014 letter sent by the board of supervisors said of forcing property owners to hire professionals to do the work, “This is in no way a reasonable solution.”