The West Point Community Hall was packed Friday with frustrated homeowners who attended a meeting with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to discuss flood insurance issues.
Kathleen Schaefer, FEMA regional engineer for Region IX, assured residents the agency was working on resolving the issues and warned the process would take time.
In 2008, FEMA updated its flood mapping for Calaveras County. That update increased the number of parcels in Calaveras County with flood zones on them from 2,200 to 7,200, according to Debra Lewis, Calaveras County Planning Department planner III.
Calaveras County has 700 linear miles of flood hazard awareness, the second highest in the state.
Residents whose homes are shown on the maps as being susceptible to flooding must buy flood insurance if they have mortgages.
District 2 Supervisor Steve Wilensky said he thinks it is a good idea for homeowners threatened by floods to protect themselves. What he takes issue with is the belief by many residents that FEMA’s maps are wrong. If the maps are in fact wrong, residents are being forced to pay high premiums for flood insurance that they don’t need.
West Point’s Ken Bender lives on Barney Way, which is a road along the Middle Fork of the Mokelumne River. Bender and many of his neighbors were told they needed to purchase flood insurance policies for their homes, which sit on the hillside overlooking the river.
FEMA calculates how high water could go in a “100-year flood,” and maps flood zones accordingly.
Bender and several of his neighbors believe their homes are above the flood zone, and they are angry they have been required to pay for flood insurance they don’t believe they need.
“A year ago this last January, I was forced to insure my home for the 1 percent chance per year that it would suffer flood damage,” Bender said. “Well, that started my blood boiling ….”
Bender believed it was wrong that he and his neighbors were forced to pay for the pricy insurance and said he would complain until the problem was resolved.
“Somebody’s attention needs to be brought to this to say, ‘Hey, this is a screw up,’” said Joe Nunes, also a homeowner on Barney Way. “How much diligence was given to this information? I guess the reason why I sound irritated, is because it’s costing me money – and very unfairly. I’ve already spent $2,200 trying to get out of it.”
Wilensky got involved to help his constituents with their issue, and he facilitated a meeting with Schaefer.
During the meeing, Schaefer faced a barrage of questions from frustrated homeowners.
She was asked if residents could be reimbursed for paying for flood insurance if they were incorrectly placed in the flood zone.
She hesitated, before informing attendees that she would prefer to answer the question in writing because she is an engineer.
Bender and others said their property values have taken a big hit because of the flood insurance requirement.
“My concern is how many more people are going to find out about this problem when they get ready to sell or take out a mortgage,” Nunes said. “It’s wrong.”
A main point of contention for the Barney Way residents was how big a 100-year flood would be.
FEMA determined that 12,600 cubic feet per second could rip through the Middle Fork of the Mokelumne River canyon in a 100-year flood.
Wilensky passed out a chart showing the high water level for each year going back to 1912. The highest level in that period was in 1997, which he believes represented the 100-year flood.
He said the past 100 years have been unusual or FEMA’s estimate is wrong.
“It is a statistical process,” Schaefer said. “I’ll use the example of when you roll dice. We know that you don’t always get perfect odds when you roll dice. But if you do it over a long period of time, you get the odds. It’s the same kind of concept.”
How did this happen?
Maps were outdated and inaccurate in Calaveras County, which led to some homes being built in a flood plain, according to Wilensky. A near catastrophe in the Valley Springs area led to a big push to update maps to prevent more homes from being built in dangerous areas. That push combined with a regular FEMA map update, led to the maps that are now in use.
Debra Lewis of the Calaveras County Planning Department said the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors voted in August of 2008 to include the flood awareness zones, as prepared by the state Department of Resources, to the FEMA map update.
“They are called flood hazard awareness areas,” Lewis said. “They were developed by the Department of Water Resources. They are advisory; they are not accompanied by engineering, or mapped in detail.”
Lewis said the DWR areas are not flood plains, or intended to be regulated as such.
“If a county specifically requests, those areas can be rolled into the flood plains, and will be regulated as though they were flood plains,” Lewis said.
Wilensky said he does not recall voting to include the DWR zones in the FEMA maps.
“Back in 2008, when the staff brought forward this opportunity to incorporate DWR awareness zones into the FEMA mapping process about to begin, there was a very compelling PowerPoint and presentation that was made to the board,” Planning Director Rebecca Willis said. “As part of that, the staff requested the board include the DWR awareness zones.”
“It was assumed that everything would be based on good solid science,” Willis said. “What we have found out since is that that’s not the case. The FEMA maps are based on science. The DWR awareness zones are exactly that – awareness zones.”
Wilensky said he was not informed of the potential consequences associated with including the DWR zones in the FEMA maps.
“The FEMA bashing is not justified,” Lewis said. “We brought this on ourselves.”
What is FEMA doing?
Enough residents complained about flood insurance that FEMA realized there were issues with the mapping of Calaveras County. This led to the commissioning of Light Detection and Ranging mapping last December to remap the whole county. LIDAR uses pulsing lasers to accurately map landscapes, Schaefer said.
The LIDAR mapping data will not be available to FEMA until July, and it will not be processed and integrated into the maps until sometime next winter, Schaefer said.
Until then, Schaefer said FEMA is working closely with the Planning Department to quickly process paperwork sent in by residents attempting to prove they are not in a flood zone.
What residents can do now?
Those who believe their property is not in a flood zone should go to the Planning Department or look online at the flood zone maps, according to Willis.
Schaefer said that residents can file for an “out as shown letter of map amendment.” If FEMA agrees that a structure is not in the flood zone, the flood insurance mandate can be lifted.
“If your house is not in the blue shaded area, the Planning Department can help you fill out the forms, it’s free of charge; you do not need to hire a surveyor. It’s just some time and effort,” Willis said.
While this seems like a practical recourse for residents, shouts of “The map is wrong,” erupted from the audience.
“We’re operating on a map that we know is sometimes 50-to-100 feet off,” Wilensky said. “What that means is houses that were flooded in 1997 are considered outside the flood plain, and people who were 20 feet above it are in it.”
Those whose homes are shown inside the flood zone who want to challenge that assessment, can have their property surveyed and fill out paperwork to prove to FEMA their home is not at risk.
Douglas Ketron, a civil mining engineer, said that without a base flood elevation it’s impossible to fill out the paperwork to prove a home is not in a flood zone. This leaves residents no recourse other than protest.
“Now that I have a better idea (of the issues), I can go to FEMA headquarters and ask them for their guidance, and ask them if there is anything I can do,” Schaefer said.
“If what I get back from FEMA headquarters does not satisfy you, certainly we can arrange a meeting with my bosses at FEMA headquarters and your supervisors and Rep. Dan Lungren and make a pitch for some change.”
Wilenksy said he would pay for buses to shuttle District 2 residents to a protest.
Visit the Calaveras County Planning Department’s website at co.calaveras.ca.us/cc/De-partments/PlanningDepart-ment.aspx. To contact FEMA, email email@example.com or call 510-627-7054.