Wednesday, February 26, 2014

County rejects FEMA flood maps

by Matt Hughes
J-E News Editor
On Monday the Webster County Fiscal Court found themselves at a point where they had to make a decision about the highly debated FEMA flood maps. It was not a decision that the court took lightly, nor one that they had reached easily.
For the last month magistrates and Judge Executive Jim Townsend have been examining the maps and speaking with various representatives of local, state and federal government, including Congressman Ed Whitfield and Lyon County Judge Executive Wade White.
“Lyon county is the one county in the state that has told FEMA absolutely no,” Judge Townsend told the magistrates. “I’m not sure that we don’t need to be the second. There is a lot to weigh.”
Townsend told the court that he had spent some time speaking with White during a recent legislative session in Frankfort, and Magistrate Chad Townsend presented the court with an email that White had recently sent to The Journal-Enterprise.
“I am not willing to be party to a government agency that is knowingly hurting our people and their home values if I have a choice, despite their threats,” wrote White. “By staying a part of the program we felt we were legitimizing the maps.  By coming out, we did get FEMA’s attention.  I haven’t found another county that has done that.”
Since Lyon County voted to reject the maps, White said, FEMA has agreed to revisit his county’s maps.
The biggest reason the Fiscal Court has seriously considered voting to accept the maps, despite what everyone sees as errors, is the threat of losing FEMA funding that becomes available in the event of a flood. But according to White, that is a somewhat empty threat.
“If you read it closely, the FEMA funding rejection is only for areas where the flood zone touches, not the whole county,” said White. He added that during the 2011 flood, Lyon County did not qualify for individual assistance (IA).
“We did not have enough flood damage to homes. IA requires several homes in a long stretch to be wiped out and even if you qualify, its only around $30,000 per home.  Its very difficult to get individual assistance.  In areas where we actually have a true flood zone - if we lose every house in that flood zone - I don’t believe we would qualify for IA anyway.  So the threat is worthless to us.”
Lyon County did qualify for public assistance, which is for publicly owned property such as a county road or city street.
“None of that money we got was actually in a flood zone,” he wrote. “Most was out in the county where roads were damaged by heavy rains and washouts. FEMA will only deny you money if you are requesting money in those flood zones.  If we have a tornado or anything outside those small flood zone areas we still qualify.  They don’t cut off the whole county, only the specific area zoned to be in flood zone.”
With White’s words weighing heavily on the court’s decision, magistrates also heard from Water Conservation District Agent Mike Andrews, who is well aware of the reality of flooding in Webster County.
He said that the actual flood zone in Sebree is at 386 feet, the elevation used by FEMA on the map. In the Blackford area the flood zone begins at 363.5.
Rumors have circulated that FEMA used the Sebree measurement to establish the flood zones county wide, but Andrews said that he had his doubts about that. 
“The real issue in that area is the city of Blackford itself,” he told the court. “When they did the map, I think they just covered the whole town with the flood zone. There are a lot of structures in Blackford that are above the 363.5 foot benchmark.”
Andrews added that he didn’t think there was any way to change FEMA’s decision except for each land owner to go through the process of having their property surveyed.
Until FEMA presented the county with the new flood maps, Webster County was one of the only counties in the Commonwealth without FEMA flood maps. Instead, residents generally referred to the 1937 flood as a benchmark for flooding.
“The ‘37 flood is what is considered a 500-year-flood,” said Andrews. “It’s about a foot or so more than the 100-year-flood.”
The designation on the new FEMA maps is for the 100-year-flood level. Much of the debate around the maps in Sebree has centered on the fact that much of the new flood zone did not flood in the 1937 flood.
“Elevations don’t change,” Andrews said.
Judge Townsend told the magistrates that he felt like they were being “ram-rodded” by FEMA, and recommended that they not accept the maps at this time.
The ordinance to accept the maps was defeated with a unanimous vote.
In other business, Judge Townsend read a proclamation declaring March as Sever Storm Month in Webster County to help the Webster County EMA raise awareness of tornado and severe thunderstorm safety.

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