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The Coastal Packet

The longtime national journal, Progressive Review, has moved its headquarters from Washington DC to Freeport, Maine, where its editor, Sam Smith, has long ties. This is a local edition dealing with Maine news and progressive politics.

9/6/09

Hurricane FEMA


Portland Press Herald -
The cities of Portland and South Portland are cooperating in an effort to challenge the Federal Emergency Management Agency proposal for new flood insurance maps for Portland Harbor. The maps reclassify the harbor as a high-risk zone and effectively prohibit new construction on all of the city's private and public piers. They would also raise insurance rates for property owners on both sides of the harbor.

The two cities are urging FEMA to re-examine its data and methodology and have hired a consultant to develop additional analysis. . .

In its proposed map, the agency reclassifies Portland Harbor from an "A-zone" to a "V-zone." In an "A-zone," the bottom floor must be raised a foot above a 100-year flood: a flood with a 1 percent chance of occurring or being exceeded in a given year. Velocity flood zones, or "V-zones," are areas where FEMA believes waves or high velocity water could cause structural damage in a 100-year flood.

In a V-zone, new structures cannot be built on piers and wharfs that are over water. In addition, an existing structure on a pier or wharf could not be substantially rebuilt if it were damaged or destroyed. . .

The cities of Portland and South Portland have hired Bob Gerber, an environmental engineer with Sebago Technics of Westbrook, to further analyze the FEMA data. "Some of the FEMA data is pretty good," Gerber said. "Some of it is pretty far-fetched. It's kind of a mixed bag."

Portland Press Herald - Portland officials are shocked that restrictions would likely prohibit any development of the Maine State Pier and block improvements to other waterfront buildings. They correctly say there is a considerable difference between construction in environmentally pristine areas and developing or repairing structures in a harbor that has hosted commercial and recreational activity for centuries.

NY Times - The inhabitants of the bungalows and wood-frame homes along the gently lapping waters of Raritan Bay are, in the words of one of them, Cathy Vashey, "hard-working, week-to-week kind of people." Buying flood insurance would pinch their blue-collar budgets, and most have never had to - until now.

What has prompted the shift is a five-year, $1 billion project by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to draw new maps pinpointing places that are vulnerable to the kind of flood that occurs once a century - meaning the flood has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any year. Every county in the New York region has been remapped, and in Monmouth County in New Jersey, across Raritan Bay from Staten Island, 4,300 properties in four towns have been newly branded as flood-prone. Starting Sept. 25, those property owners - in Middleton, Keansburg, Hazlet and Union Beach - will be required to carry flood insurance; in Ms. Vashey's case, the cost could be $1,700 a year.

"I think we're paying for Katrina," said Ms. Vashey, 50, a nurse's aide who has lived with her husband, a truck driver, and two children in a $180,000 clapboard house here for 18 years. "I think FEMA needs the money and they want us to pay for all the money they spent for the other emergency.". . .

Monmouth County is suing the agency in federal court to block the flood-zone designations. The lawsuit contends that the agency declared a two-mile 1970s-era dike along Pews Creek and the dunes along Raritan Bay to be adequate flood protection for bayside residents as recently as January 2008 - then, five months later, switched positions. . .

Behind the debate lies the complex half-century-old saga of flood insurance. Because floods can wreak wide and catastrophic destruction, few carriers provided insurance until 1968, when Congress created the National Flood Insurance Program. Under the program, homeowners in certain zones are required to buy policies from insurance companies - about 90 provide it - and the government pays for flood damage with federal funds collected largely from homeowner premiums.

To enable homeowners to know their risks, FEMA was charged with mapping areas with a 1 percent or more chance of catastrophic flooding in any given year. Banks almost always require customers in these zones to purchase flood insurance to get or maintain their mortgages. . .

Residents can view the agency's maps online, or visit their local town halls to check whether their properties are deemed flood-prone. Property owners who object to the agency's classification of their buildings can commission land surveys (at a cost of several hundred dollars) and then ask FEMA for a "letter of map amendment" to show to their banks. . .

Bruce Steneck, 68, a retired power lineman from nearby Hazlet who has lived on the Jersey Shore his entire life, said that the worst storm he could remember was in the 1960s, and that bay water moved only a couple of blocks inland. He lives 11 blocks away, yet is in the new flood zone.

"A tsunami would have to hit Raritan Bay to push the water as far as Highway 36, and that, in my opinion, would never happen," he said, referring to the major road that runs parallel to the shoreline. "They are forcing a lot of people to take flood insurance that it would never affect."

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