Clewiston Commissioners vow to ‘go down fighting’

As the effective date for the new Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) flood maps approaches, Clewiston City Commissioners have vowed to do everything in their power to minimize the effect the new maps will have on residents with federally backed mortgages.

The new flood maps, which place most parcels within the city of Clewiston limits in a high-risk flood zone, require all business- and homeowners with a federally backed mortgage to purchase flood insurance. Since parcels within the city limits are in a high-risk zone, flood insurance is expected to be extremely expensive in some cases.

Insurance rates released by FEMA estimate that a $200,000 home with $80,000 worth of contents would carry a roughly $5,623-per-year policy if the home sat one foot below the Base Flood Elevation (BFE) — or the height to which flood waters are expected to rise in any given year.

A similar home sitting one-foot above BFE would carry an $819-per-year policy. A similar home built 10-feet below BFE would carry a $25,000-per-year policy; fortunately no home in Clewiston is built that far below BFE.

These estimates are based on 2012 rates, and each home and business would be assessed individually to determine how large of a policy is necessary.

The new flood maps go into effect July 6, 2015, but city commissioners are looking into ways to either push back implementation or to change the city’s high-risk classification.

At their regular meeting held Feb. 16, city commissioners learned that many areas around the lake are not classified as high-risk zones, though they also rely on the non-certified dike to hold back flood waters.

Parcels in Hendry County’s unincorporated areas, including Harlem, Flaghole and Hooker’s Point, are not in high-risk zones, though some of those areas are lower lying than the city of Clewiston. Areas in Glades County, including much of Moore Haven, are also not classified as high-risk.

It seems that the city of Clewiston is a special case, which could be due in part to the the railroad tracks and canals which essentially “dike in” in the city of Clewiston.

In fact, what the city used as protection from outside flood waters — canals and the railroad tracks which act as berms to keep flood waters out — are actually a detriment to the city in FEMA’s flood map study. If there were a breach in the dike, FEMA claimed, the canals and railroad tracks would essentially hold the flood waters inside the city. FEMA’s study does not take into account the pumps that Clewiston uses to keep water from accumulating in the streets, as only gravity can be used to determine flood drainage in the study.

The commission was in agreement that the results from FEMA’s study “defied logic,” with Commissioner Mali Gardner saying the city was “targeted” in the study.

In a motion that was approved by all five commissioners, Gardner charged the city attorney and other city staff to gather all documents necessary to fight the maps as they now stand. She also requested that the city be reassessed using a different contractor.

Commissioner Sherida Ridgdill brought to light another important point: the model used by the contractor to determine what could happen to the city if the dike failed is not open for the public to view — a circumstance she believed violated the rights of residents within the city. And as the city attorney works with staff members to explore all possibilities as to why the city of Clewiston is being held at a different standard than other areas surrounding it, commissioners are moving forward to send out resolutions to state and federal representatives, including Rep. Alcee Hastings and Sen. Bill Nelson.

“It might be a situation where we can’t win, but we need to go down fighting,” said Ridgdill.

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