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If Only Noah had FEMA

Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED AP, Criterium Engineers
Disaster is heading for the Portland waterfront. Not because of the decline of the ground fish catch, or the Lobster Wars, or too many cruise ship arrivals, but due to FEMA. In August, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) announced the pending release of its new flood insurance rate maps for Portland Harbor and the Maine coast from Harpswell to Kittery.
What has Greater Portland officials up in arms is that the new flood maps have re-zoned Portland and South Portland’s waterfronts from an ‘A—zone’ to a “V-zone’. ‘V’ stands for “high velocity water” which is FEMA techno-jargon for waves. This means no new structures can be built on piers or wharfs that are over water. Also, any existing structure that is damaged or destroyed by flooding can not be substantially rebuilt, instead only 50 percent of the market value of the structure can be restored.
This requirement has many serious ramifications. It effectively destroys any hope for new projects or major capital renovations. The financial risks and insurance costs have suddenly begun deal breakers. Major municipal projects such as the much-hyped Maine State Pier development is all but sunk as the scaled down version might not be worth the trouble.
And what about the existing or future condominiums on the piers? Just when the condo market tide was starting to turn, news of higher insurance costs and risks as well as the inability to rebuild will cause sales of new and existing waterfront condo units to be dead in the water.
It gets worse. After the recognition of the negative effects caused by the 1986 Portland waterfront moratorium that stopped construction of residential and non-marine use buildings, a ground swell of support has been pushing the City to relax the restrictions and allow mix-use facilities in the waterfront zones. It was understood that a marine-use only policy was failing and a synergy of businesses was necessary to attract the capital needed to renovate the long neglected pier infrastructure.
The impact of the activities on the waterfront goes well beyond the tide line or flood plain shown on FEMA’s maps. The waterfront is a key element to the financial well being of the entire region. It creates jobs, attracts tourists, increases the demand for housing, and helps maintain a tax base to support a regional service center for human services. Portland Harbor is one of the largest ports on the eastern seaboard for off loading petroleum products.
FEMA is under a mandate to update flood maps used since 1968 when the National Flood Insurance Program was established. The intent of the program was to lessen flood damage by identifying flood-prone locations to allow the establishment of flood plain management strategies and to curtail new development in high-risk areas.
Though FEMA undoubtedly has the best intentions, its mismanagement of the Hurricane Katrina disaster can not be overlooked especially here in Maine where we saw FEMA run up a bill in 2005 of over $274,000 for storage of bags of ice in this state for the people of New Orleans. That still does not make sense.
Opponents to FEMA’s findings argue that the agency used the shore line areas east of the waterfront to perform its analysis of the effect of storm forces instead of recognizing the calming effect the piers and wharf have on the waterfront further west up the Fore River. The waterfront has been operational for 300 years. It has seen its share of weather events and it will see a lot more despite global weather changes.
Expanding and reclassifying the flood zones in a waterfront area can also bring on other unexpected impediments to economic development. Shortly after FEMA made changes to the river front area of Portland, Oregon, an environmental group filed a law suit to prohibit FEMA from issuing Federal flood insurance thus halting the commencement of two huge projects, a university housing complex and a marine terminal, along the Willamette and Columbia rivers.
The seriousness of FEMA’s actions has not gone unnoticed by Maine’s congressional delegation. Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe as well as Representative Chellie Pingree have requested that FEMA reconsider its position and reanalyze their storm models. With this kind of political pressure it is likely FEMA will slow down its process and seek the local input that FEMA’s computer model lacks.