Weak Levees, Updated Flood Maps Bad News for Builders
An announcement by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers earlier this month that 122 levees have unacceptable maintenance ratings is potentially bad news for developers working on projects in the areas that those levees were intended to protect, Michael DePue, an engineer at PBS&J in Little Rock, Ark., said at the International Builders’ Show earlier this month in Orlando, Fla.
The Corps announcement coincides with a $1 billion, multi-year effort by the Federal Emergency Management Administration to update the nation’s flood maps.
The updates will make the maps easier to access and read, but they are also changing the size and location of designated flood plains and flood hazard areas, where development is restricted and flood insurance is mandatory. Adding the property that had been protected by the 122 levees in question — which FEMA requires — means that a significant amount of developable acreage is now subject to additional regulation and higher insurance fees.
“It’s going to mean big changes for many communities,” DePue said. “Flood zones may get bigger or they may get smaller,” but they usually get bigger, he said. And development increases the likelihood of changes. “If everything is built according to regulations, over time, the flood elevations can be expected to rise 1 foot,” DePue said.
Homes in flood hazard areas require special permits and must be built so that the lowest floor is at or above the identified flood elevation. In inland floodplains, developers have the option of raising the homes by filling in the land, but on coastal floodplains the homes must be built on stilts or pilings.
The rules also apply to homes in which more than 50% of the square footage is being remodeled. As a result, in the case of one community, tornado-ravaged homes were required to conform to more stringent floodplain construction standards when they were being rebuilt, he said, even though they were not damaged by flooding.
Instead of waiting for the additional expenses that can result from changing map elevations, and subjecting their customers to as much as a four-fold increase in flood insurance fees, there are steps that builders and developers can take, DePue said:
- Carefully review existing maps. Many current floodplain maps are online at www.msc.fema.gov. Gather information about projects built since the flood maps were created, especially projects that included a lot of fill or where culverts were constructed.
- Remind home owners to make sure their flood insurance is current. Under a “continuous coverage” exemption, existing policy holders can be grandfathered in when the flood map changes if they can demonstrate proof of existing coverage. Under another rule, if the home was built in compliance with existing regulations at the time of construction, the rates are allowed to remain the same. Flood insurance policyholders are eligible for an add-on policy that supplies up to $30,000 to bring a home into compliance — as long as they have the policy before the map changes.
Get to know the local flood plan manager. In smaller communities, it may be the fire chief or mayor. Make sure you are aware of any planned public meetings to review changes.
- When FEMA makes preliminary maps available, study them carefully. DePue worked with one Fort Myers, Fla. developer who found 61 errors on the new flood map — for instance, with floodways that were too wide. That’s another good reason to keep records of property improvements, like detention ponds, as-built grading plans and culvert plans, he noted.
- After you document the needed changes, make sure they are reflected in the updated maps during the follow-up review process. “Bring your data and make your voice heard,” he said.
- The problem of poorly-maintained levees is “the elephant in the room,” DePue said. Communities that suddenly find themselves in special flood hazard areas because the levees protecting them failed certification can’t be grandfathered in. “And this is only the first round” of review, he said. “Every levee must be proven through a fairly extensive certification process,” DePue said.
“You need to pay attention to changes because they are going to affect your day-to-day business,” he said.
For more information, e-mail Cali Schmidt at NAHB, or call her at 800-368-5242 x8132.