Clewiston mayor fears flood insurance rate hikes will be too high to afford

Mayor Phillip Roland

Mayor Phillip Roland

An informal meeting organized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) held last week in Clewiston has sent local officials into a frenzy trying to rally support from other lake communities, counties and the state to curb the increases in mandated flood insurance.

A representative from FEMA called the meeting a “resilience meeting,” and said the goal was to bring together local officials and FEMA to look at ways to mitigate flooding in the city.

In the days following the meeting, however, Clewiston’s mayor, city manager, city engineer and city attorney got together to appeal to officials in the communities surrounding Lake Okeechobee, as well as state and U.S. representatives and senators, to fight against the insurance rate hikes that Clewiston’s Mayor Phillip Roland says would be detrimental to the community.

“If this thing really comes to pass, there’s a possibility that the city of Clewiston’s flood insurance could go up — hell, I don’t even know — 1,000 percent? It could be increased by 10 times what it is now. … We’re a depressed area, with one of the highest unemployment rates in the state, and we just don’t need something like this in the city of Clewiston,” said Mayor Roland.

The rate increases for flood insurance became a hot topic last fall, as FEMA redrew flood maps across the country and defined “high risk” areas where residents would be required to purchase flood insurance if they have a federally backed mortgage.

The city of Clewiston is facing such extreme flood insurance rate hikes due in part to the security of the dike.
“The real thing now is that the Corps won’t certify the dike that it won’t be breached,” said Mayor Roland, speaking about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is in charge of certifying the dike for accreditation.

In an interview last September with John Campbell, public relations supervisor for the Army Corps Jacksonville District, Campbell said the Corps “does not have engineers that will certify that the dike will not fail with a 21-foot lake level for a one-percent event.” A one-percent event being a flood that has a one-percent chance of occurring in a given year.

The rhetoric seems not to have changed in the last nine months, but Mayor Roland believes the city of Clewiston, as well as other communities surrounding the lake, would not flood the way they have in years past.

“My contention is that we haven’t been flooded since 1947, and that’s when we had the hurricane that had the whole southern part of Florida under water. That kind of hurricane could hit us today and we wouldn’t be under water. We might have wet feet for a day or so, but we wouldn’t be under four feet of water. The flooding had nothing to do with the dike. It had to do with rainfall and the fact that we didn’t have the capability to drain the town as we do now,” said Mayor Roland.

Apart from modern-day drainage systems and the onset of large-scale agriculture in the area, which Mayor Roland said also attributes to the inability for the area to flood like it did in the past, Mayor Roland also said the lake level will never reach 21-feet — the level the Corps used when determining to certify the dike or not.

“That lake won’t go to 21 feet. The Corps of Engineers won’t let that happen. It’s a misnomer to figure a 21-foot lake, and that’s what I told FEMA and they agreed with me!” said Mayor Roland.

So as FEMA continues to educate officials and residents on the consequences of the new flood maps and discusses ways to mitigate flooding in certain areas, Clewiston’s top officials are working on a resolution to send to the cities surrounding the lake, as well as the state legislature, to fight the insurance rate hikes that face the residents of Clewiston.

“I really don’t know what the outcome is going to be. But we’re going to fight for the city of Clewiston and I hope that we get support,” said the Mayor.

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