February 25, 2015

Homeowners pay for errors in outdated flood maps

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Chris Genzel in his back yard

Darrell Hoemann/CU-CitizenAccess.org

Chris Genzel in his back yard in rural Champaign County where his home had been on a flood plain by mistake. Photo taken on Wednesday, February 25, 2015.

Chris and Barb Genzel have lived in the same house in Urbana for nearly 40 years and they say their house has never flooded.

“Behind our house is a farm at a lower elevation, and our house backs up to a drainage ditch. We knew we were never going to flood,” Chris Genzel said recently.

But according to U.S. government flood maps, their home is in a 100-year flood plain, putting it at high risk of flooding.

That map error is one of many in the Champaign-Urbana area and is the result of old data being used for new flood maps by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency. The errors have caused a multitude of problems across the nation.

In 2004, FEMA began updating flood maps by digitizing the flood maps to make them more accurate, said Sally McConkey, flood plain map manager at the Illinois State Water Survey. McConkey is based in Coordinated Hazard Assessment and Mapping Program and is also a civil engineer who serves on FEMA’s Technical Mapping Advisory Council.

Champaign County was one of the 78 counties in Illinois that received the new flood maps. However, not all of the 102 counties in Illinois received updated flood maps.

“It’s sort of a necessary evil to reissue maps with older data on them,” said McConkey, noting that FEMA ran out of money before it updated every map.

“Initially there was this big push to get these maps that were 30 and 40 years out-of-date corrected. There was a presidential initiative for a billion dollars spaced out over four and a half, five years and that was called map modernization,” said McConkey.

But McConkey said the funding has been declining and the project has a lower priority.

“And we think that having funding for flood plain mapping should be a very high priority because it’s the one natural disaster that the costs are going up every year for our nation, our taxpayers’ dollars and it’s the most predictable natural disaster,” McConkey said.

Chris Genzel said although he was never concerned about his home flooding, he was concerned about his children one day inheriting the expensive problem of purchasing costly flood insurance if they decided to sell their parents’ home.

So, in June, the Genzels filed a letter with FEMA asking their home be removed from the flood plain. The application, known as a Letter of Map Amendment, or a LOMA, cost the Genzels about $1,000.

The elderly couple considered the letter a future investment, and after several days of having their property surveyed and approved by a FEMA Geographic Information System analyst, the flood maps were revised. But only the Genzels’ home and a neighbor’s home were removed from the flood plain mapped in their area. Others in the neighborhood were not removed because they did not file applications.

Dozens of letters being filed

Rex Bradfield is the civil engineer and land surveyor who helped the Genzels get their home out of the flood plain. Architects, engineers or a certified land surveyor are allowed to conduct inspections for letters amendments.

Bradfield says he files, on average, about 30 letters for homes in the Champaign-Urbana area each year with FEMA.

Bradfield says that even though the flood maps have been updated, there are still major inaccuracies. For example, the Schnucks supermarket company parking lot on Vine Street in Urbana is elevated about 15 feet on a hill, but is located next to a low-level viaduct that floods frequently.

According to the flood maps, the Schnucks parking lot and the even higher elevated building beside it are in flood zones.

“It is highly unlikely that either of these buildings will ever have flooding issues,” Bradfield said.

Bradfield said the biggest map inaccuracies occur in the rural areas.

Maps miss flooding areas

Cindy Simpson, who is a business owner in Hindsboro, just south of Champaign County, knows the other impact of bad flood maps — not being able to get federal flood insurance.

Simpson’s business, Stumble Inn, flooded in 2008 after six inches of water flowed throughout her business. Simpson estimates the overall damage costs were close to $30,000 after she and her husband replaced the floors, drywall and several major appliances.

“I had to borrow money from my in-laws, friends, we took out loans from the bank, we had to rebuild all of it ourselves,” said Simpson. “FEMA came out and did some research on the area after the flood, but we weren’t eligible for the disaster assistance.”

According to the maps, which can be found on FEMA.gov, Stumble Inn is considered to be in a very low-risk flooding zone.

Simpson says since she left her job at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2001 to open Stumble Inn, her business has flooded four times.

“I just keep rebuilding. That’s all I can do. This is all I’ve got and I love this place,” said Simpson.

Paul Osman, the state national flood insurance program coordinator for Illinois, said insurance is generally needed by someone in every county and “that every county in Illinois has been declared a flood disaster since 1978. There’s not a year that goes by that there isn’t a flooding disaster somewhere in the state.”

Osman said Illinois has the largest inland system of rivers slates and streams in the whole nation. Fifteen percent of the total land area in Illinois is made up of flood plains and the Ohio River and the Mississippi River come to a point in the southern tip of Illinois. According to Osman, “Essentially the entire nation drains down through Illinois.”

770 communities and 82 counties in Illinois participate in the National Flood Insurance Program. The program covers up to $500,000 for commercial structures and $250,000 for homeowners.

Not enough insurance

According to McConkey and Osman, it is a large misconception that flood insurance alone is enough to recover after a flood.

“If you are flooded, your homeowner’s insurance does not cover it. If you get a federally declared disaster and you get individual insurance, that does not put you back on your feet,” said McConkey.

That’s because having national flood insurance is about making sure a federally backed mortgage is covered. It is not intended to help recipients fully rebuild after a natural disaster.

But the current model is not sustainable.

“The problem is that the National Flood Insurance Program is broke. These last few huge disasters, Katrina and Sandy, have really taxed the flood insurance program. So the entire program now is about $23 billion dollars in debt,” said Osman.

These natural disasters have placed FEMA and the National Flood Insurance Program on the Government Accountability Office’s high-risk list since 2006.

According to a report by the Government Accountability Office conducted last year, FEMA’s premium rate setting does not reflect the actual risk of flood damage. In 2013, FEMA collected $3.8 billion in premiums, and insured $1.3 trillion in property. FEMA tried to eliminate discounted flood insurance subsidies in its rate setting model, but those changes were repealed less than one year later.

Updated March 13, 2015:  An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the National Insurance Flood Program provides up to $250,000 in flood coverage for commercial structures and $100,000 for residential structures. The program provides up to $500,000 on commercial structures and $250,000 on residential structures.  The article also stated that fifty percent of Illinois land area is designated in being in flood plains. The correct amount is 15 percent. In addition, the article stated that only certified land surveyors are allowed to do inspections for letters of amendment to flood maps. Architects and engineers also can do inspections. This story has been updated to reflect the corrections.