FEMA is revising flood zone maps

Parts of Clewiston still in high-risk zones

The Federal Emergency Management Agency conducted a community coordination hearing Tuesday morning at the Clewiston City Hall, focused on giving Hendry County public officials an overview of the preliminary Flood Insurance Study it’s undertaking. As part of this FIS, the Flood Insurance Rate Maps, or FIRMs, for the Lake Okeechobee region have largely been redrawn.

Those maps are important to commerce because they identify the areas in which home and business owners must carry insurance under the National Flood Insurance Program administered by FEMA if they have federally backed mortgages.

A senior civil engineer from the Atlanta regional FEMA office, Mark Vieira, conducted the meeting. Clewiston Mayor Mali Gardner and several members of the city’s staff attended, along with a handful of other local public authorities including Hendry County Building Official Mark Lynch, to view and discuss the revised FIRMs they all received Oct. 16 detailing the flood risk in Hendry County, including particularly Clewiston and unincorporated areas of eastern Hendry nearby, if breaches should occur in the Herbert Hoover Dike surrounding the lake.

Mr. Vieira explained their purpose: “We would’ve liked to have done this sooner but we of course had the storm and didn’t make it. This is is basically what we call the final meeting, or the preliminary D-FIRM communication coordination meeting. We have to go through this every time we come up with new FIRM maps. We did this about three or four years ago when we came out with the maps that are in effect now. We’re doing this meeting because we’re revising them. I think you’re maybe not 100 percent happy with the preliminaries but you should be happier than you were with the last ones. And then we’ll be back again, when the corps (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, or USACE) finishes certifying the dike over there.”

From the questions raised later in the session by Mayor Gardner, City Engineer Tommy Perry and others, it was apparent that local officials aren’t close to that level of happiness with the revised maps, which show large swaths of northern parts of Clewiston still in high-risk zones although many properties in the downtown area now are in lower-risk areas.

Mr. Vieira stated that by law, his office has to conduct the hearing to inform local officials of the study results and which areas the flood maps show are at highest risk, because they still can be revised before being finalized and opened for a required 90-day public review and appeal/comment period. “We’ll talk a little more about the study, what the maps look like now and where we go from here,” he said. “And we’ll talk about the 90-day appeal process and then the six-month compliance.”

The 90-day appeal time is currently set to run from April through June 2018, with a FEMA “final determination letter” scheduled to be issued in September and then a “community compliance period,” when local ordinances must be rewritten to include or reference the new maps, until March 2019, when the maps would take effect. Those dates are tentative because FEMA does not control the entire process.

Mr. Vieira turned over the remote to one of two FEMA consultants present as copies of the PowerPoint presentation he was about to show were handed out.

“I know a lot of you have heard this before so I’m going to be light on the details,” said Michael DeCherco, encouraging participants to take notes and ask questions and adding that he and the study consultants would be happy to talk with the audience afterward about FEMA’s modeling and some of the statistics used.

He said the agenda was just to talk about the Herbert Hoover Dike and the update, “and what happens now that you have the maps and what the legal processes are in rolling these things out.”

He explained that they did two-dimensional (2-D) modeling “in conjunction with the USACE using their model and looking at what would happen if there were breaches at different places around the lake. There was what they call a ‘sunny day breach’ … assuming the water was this high, if the dike were to breach, here’s where the water would go. We calculated that at each of the nodes … so it’s a joint probability method, we look at all the different elevations … It’s a very detailed study and a very detailed model,” Mr. DeChero said.

He showed an original map with breach locations, “and then, you may or may not know, the corps came up with a reclassification and with a bunch of more areas,” between where the USAC had certified parts of the dike “as being able to withstand a 100-year event. That’s done by the corps,” he explained. “They just say that physically the dike could handle a 1 percent annual chance event, or a 100-year event water level in the lake. And so what we look at is what happens then if there were to be breaches, how the water would flow, would it get to Clewiston or not.”

Mr. Vieira jumped in to explain: “We told the corps we wanted certification for the whole dike, not for partial [areas]. If the corps had certified the whole dike, we could have taken large areas out of the ‘AE’ zone (high-risk) and changed them to a shaded X zone (where insurance is recommended but not required) … hopefully someday we’ll get the rest of the dike certified and then we’ll change the maps again.

He said futher that there would be a restudy nearly immediately if the USACE acted on that because he has set money aside every year in case that happens “so we can get this process, keep it going. Our headquarters knows I’m doing that because to me it’s that important, that we have the money there so we can redo the study.” In that case, FEMA would act quickly, he said, because “we’re in contact with them monthly.”

When the group began examining particular areas of the revised maps, which an aide displayed from her computer, there was a long discussion with local officials pointing out that during recent heavy rains, including Hurricane Irma, before that storm and since, the majority of Clewiston proper remained “high and dry.” That’s largely because Clewiston has its own drainage district that has a levee, or berm, surrounding much of the town and operates canals and pumps to prevent flooding.

Mr. Vieira noted that the current study did not take into account a flooding event caused by rain or tropical cyclones, and said FEMA may have to come in and do another study just for that. But in response to comments about specific areas of the city that officials contend do not readily flood, he said those conducting the study would welcome more information and would revise the maps if necessary. Changes might be easier at this point, he implied, because: “An appeal must have scientific and/or technological data. You have to give us data to say our study was incorrect or wrong, that the hydraulics or hydrology was wrong. You have to submit proof. Once we get appeals or comments, we notify the submitter as to how they will be evaluated. After the 90-day period and all appeals and comments have been resolved, FEMA will issue a Letter of Final Determination, which begins the six-month compliance period,” he said, adding, however, that “I think most people in this community are going to be happy with the new maps.”

He urged participants to call the NFIP office for Florida, where Coordinator Steve Martin may be reached at 850-922-5268.

Homeowners will be able to appeal also when the public comment period begins, if they believe their property is incorrectly listed in an SFHA (Special Flood Hazard Area).

Mr. Vieira also encouraged particpants to visit the FEMA website, which is www.fema.gov, for more information, or consultant Michael Taylor of AECOM (the technology corporation that is a consultant to FEMA regarding the maps) at 404-946-9488, or the FEMA Region IV Project Officer assigned to the community at 770-220-5406.

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