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Flood Map Threat is Cresting

Flood Map Threat is Cresting

Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED AP, Criterium Engineers
Published in Condo Media, December 2010

Several months ago, we reported on the potential economic damage to the Portland, Maine waterfront community due to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) program to implement a new flood map plan based on its latest computer model. The effect this would have on flood insurance rates and the ability to rebuild after a natural disaster was very significant to the condominiums and commercial businesses.

FEMA Reconsiders

A lot has changed since then. Portland successfully defended its position proving FEMA's flood map was flawed. An engineering study demonstrated the government's model did not accurately portray the storm conditions with regard to wave velocities and forces along a coastal area with many substantial commercial piers acting as wave surge dampers.
But even with Portland's success, the rest of southern Maine's coastal communities were under the FEMA threat. This was particularly troubling for towns such as Old Orchard Beach that were facing the perfect storm of three converging forces. First, the FEMA maps became official on Sept. 3, starting a 90-day clock for filing a formal appeal to prevent implementation of the flood plans in Jan. 20ll. Second, owners of affected property were being forced to buy flood insurance prior to the implementation date to avoid the expected higher insurance rates, assuming flood insurance could be bought at all. Third, the residential real estate market, already depressed due to the recession and a recent bank foreclosure scandal causing a glut of units in the market, was now facing the uncertainty of the effects ofthe FEMA flood maps. It was anticipated the sum effect would scare buyers even further away.
To combat this, many coastal towns, inclnding Biddeford, Saco, Old Orchard Beach, the Kennebunks and Ogunquit, were authorizing engineering studies and other costly defenses to battle FEMA's plans. Political firepower was brought into the fray led by Senators Snsan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe (both R-Maine) applying their influence on the issue. Following the deluge of protest, the announcement came in October that FEMA was halting the issuance of the new flood insurance maps proposed for Cumberland and York counties. FEMA released a statement announcing it would "withdraw the current proposed (flood) maps and terminate the current appeals process." It went on to say it would incorporate local information into their flood plain model to more accurately reflect the effects of Maine's rugged coast line and elevation changes.

New FEMA Program and Joint Town Efforts

 FEMA also got the message·that it was unfair to burden the local communities' budgets in these difficult times by forcing towns to launch expensive defenses against an acknowledged flawed process. FEMA said it would switch to a program called Risk Mapping, Assessment and Planning. This will require each community to sign a project charter to participate in a review to provide each community with flood information and tools they can use to enhance their mitigation plans.
How all of this shakes out is yet to be known. To face this uncertain future, many coastal communities are banning together to review their particular situation regarding protecting their coastal properties. The most recent joint community exercise is the creation of the Sea Level Adaptation Working Group (SLAWG) made up of Biddeford, Saco, Old Orchard Beach and Scarborough. This group's purpose is to develop plans on how the four communities surrounding Saco Bay can adapt to rising sea levels. Kennebunk and York are pursuing similar actions. By acting as a group, common infrastructure items road and bridge elevations, beach protection and marsh drainage - could be efficiently addressed, Another benefit would be the coordination of dredging in one community to replace sand loss from beach erosion in another.
The important thing to keep in mind is these matters will affect all condominium owners. Many coastal towns have more than 30 percent of their property value in expensive coastal condos and other residential property. The loss of value or the inability to rebuild storm-damaged property will have an enormous impact on town revenues with the resultant effect on overall rates, school budgets and town services. Condominiums and homeowner associations are potentially one of the most organized and coordinated sectors of the real estate market; that produces political clout. The FEMA threat is not over. Community associations need to learn about the issues and make their position known or they may be hit by the next wave.