2014-06-21 / Front Page

Flood map review under way

By LIZ GOTTHELF | Staff Writer

Officials are hopeful that a third party study on flood zones will help produce accurate flood maps, which could reduce the number of homeowners who are required to purchase flood insurance.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, proposed new flood insurance rate maps last year, a continuation of a process that began in 2006. The maps designate specific flood hazard zones that require those with mortgages to purchase flood insurance.

Old Orchard Beach had prepared to make an appeal, as Town Manager Larry Mead was concerned that FEMA had used different methodologies and assumptions for different communities, and he thought FEMA needed a more consistent approach.

However, the appeal process for Old Orchard Beach and other communities has been put on hold. FEMA announced earlier this week that it will not proceed with the appeals process for flood insurance mapping in York and Cumberland counties until a third party, Scientific Resolution Panel, reviews competing methodology used in Massachusetts and Maine, which FEMA believe provides more accurate data.

“It is welcome news,” said Wells Town Manager Jonathan Carter.

Scientific Resolution Panel is reviewing methodology used by Bob Gerber, senior engineer and geologist with Ransom Consulting, for communities in Plymouth County, Mass. Gerber used the same methodology in data submissions in York and Cumberland Counties in Maine.

Gerber worked with eight Maine communities to appeal proposed FEMA maps in 2009, and the work he submitted was accepted at that time, according to a memo he wrote to his municipal clients in January. Communities in Maine with which he worked to appeal the 2009 maps have lower flood elevations on the most recently proposed FEMA maps than communities he did not work with at that time, he said in the memo. Those communities that did not work with Gerber to appeal the 2009 FEMA proposed maps now have suggested FEMA flood maps proposed in 2013 are based on a methodology used by FEMA that differs from Gerber's.

Since the 2013 proposed maps came out, Gerber was hired by municipalities such as Old Orchard Beach and Wells, who did not work with Gerber previously, to appeal the recently proposed FEMA flood maps.

Gerber said in the memo, that if he used the same methodology he used for municipalities appealing 2009 maps and applied it to Scarborough Marsh, it lowers the flood elevation by three feet from data used by FEMA methodology.

Part of the reason, Gerber said in a phone interview, is that methodology used by FEMA overstates wave height, using heights from higher waves that are offshore.

“The unfortunate part is that they started flood mapping in 2006. Here we are in 2014, and we're still messing around,” he said. He estimates it won't be until 2016 that accepted FEMA flood maps are in place. Although it varies by community, some municipalities, like Old Orchard Beach, have current flood insurance maps that date back to the 1980s.

Carter said he believes Gerber's methodology to be more accurate than methodology used by FEMA. He said the methodology used by Scientific Research Panel isn't exactly like that used by Gerber, but is close.

Carter said there are 863 flood insurance policies in Wells, the highest number of any community in Maine, so it is critical to residents that the town has accurate and credible data.

“It's always difficult to tell people to raise buildings,” said Carter. Relying on inaccurate data, people could be spending many thousands of dollars to raise homes while other data may say it's not necessary.

U.S. Senator Angus King said in a prepared statement that FEMA made a wise decision when it decided not to move forward with the appeals process until methodology and data can be verified as accurate, and he was pleased to see the agency employ a third party to review findings.

“It's critical that these flood maps accurately reflect the actual risk associated with properties. Otherwise, hundreds of Mainers could confront skyrocketing premiums for no legitimate reason,” he said.

“It has to be a good thing,” said Mead, adding that he hopes the party reviewing the data is indeed objective. “I'm very happy to see FEMA taking this step,” he said, and praised congressional delegates for their work in helping to make the review happen.

Mead said, should the currently proposed FEMA maps get approved, there would be “a significant chunk” of property owners impacted.

— Staff Writer Liz Gotthelf can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 325 or egotthelf@journaltribune.com.

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