Candice Miller for Congress, Michigan

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FEMA flood mapping back in the news

by Candice Miller on September 28, 2012

By Jeri Packer, Staff Writer

Hurricane Isaac hit Louisiana at the end of August at almost 80 miles per hour, spread out over an area 200 miles wide, the National Hurricane Center reported. It reached shore the evening before the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The hurricane center said a storm surge, which is a wall made up of accumulated water that a storm pushes ahead of itself, was almost nine feet in Louisiana. Not Katrina’s 15 to 20 feet, but a very real threat to the region.

How those numbers translate to the communities on the Great Lakes would be the same as comparing apples to oranges.

Chuck Miller, president of the Harsens Island St. Clair Flats Association, has been active in opposing FEMAs skewed numbers for years.

 Their prior models relied on a hurricane-driven storm surge and wave conditions in salt water along the Gulf coast, not Great Lakes fresh water environments,” said Miller.

Community leader Artie Bryson, and possibly the next Clay Township supervisor come November, said the only similarity between flood insurance premiums paid out in St. Clair County and those in Louisiana is they both are being used in the southern region of the country.

“It’s a money grab to help fund the cleanup down south,” he said. “That’s a lot of money going out of the county.”

Bryson said FEMA pulled over $32 million out of St. Clair County in premiums and only brought in about $1.5 million in FEMA relief.

“And that was for tornadoes, not flooding,” he added.

When FEMA began re-defining the flood zones for Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River, it put hundreds of homes in the flood zone that earlier were not. This made homeowners responsible for purchasing flood insurance required by mortgage companies and mandated by federal law.

If a resident’s elevation certificate showed they were out of the flood elevation zone, they were then required to send a letter of map amendment, called a LOMA, to formally ask to have their home removed from the flood plain. To add insult to injury, homeowners were not reimbursed for the surveyor to document that they were not in the flood plain or for the unneeded insurance premiums they had been paying.

A big campaign was launched, headed up by leaders, including U.S. Congresswoman Candice Miller, then-State Rep. Phil Pavlov, then-Clay Township Supervisor Jay DeBoyer and Chuck Miller.

After all that, FEMA announced it was going to remap the region using more sophisticated, hence more accurate, instruments.

“I am in favor of authorizing FEMA to use the new method of digitizing the old, outdated maps with state of the art satellite technology,” said Congresswoman Miller in an earlier interview. “The real issue is the federal government needs to get out of the insurance business.”

Chuck Miller said he’s concerned that no new monitoring stations have been installed by FEMA in the Lake St. Clair region and believes some of the data from other existing stations remains “questionable.”

“I am not optimistic that the ‘outcome’ will be any different in 2014 than it was in 2010,” he said. “FEMA has the technical fire power of the entire Corps of Engineers at their disposal on the taxpayers’ dime. To effectively argue their conclusions, we the people must marshal a cadre of quality scientific experts of our own… The cost will probably be significant and require real incisive leadership from our elected officials. The deck is stacked against us.”

Bryson said, from what he has heard, the state of Michigan is not required to be part of the National Flood Insurance Program. But, if it does pull out, the flood insurance rates are doubled.

“It looks like the mortgage companies are in bed with FEMA,” he said.

A few years back, a local surveying company, Project Control Engineering, found that 80 percent of the homes they surveyed in the Clay Township and Algonac area were out of the flood zone. President John R. Monte said it cost these homeowners more than $200 to document their home’s location outside the flood plain so they could avoid unnecessary flood insurance premiums.

St. Clair County Commissioner Bill Gratopp agrees that Michigan premiums are being spent outside the state. He said he and other officials are “keeping an eye on” what the federal agency is doing at every level, he said. He and Commissioner Geof Donaldson attend the regular FEMA Discovery Meetings to keep informed, he said.

FEMA officials put together an extensive form for community leaders to fill out to help contribute the data they need for the flood zone mapping. Called the “Community discovery coastal data request form,” participants were asked to fill them out to help FEMA in obtaining coastal-specific data for their communities for the Great Lakes Coastal Flood Study.

The introduction on the form read: “It will provide important information to help FEMA understand coastal flood risk issues in your community and to work with you in increasing your community’s resilience to coastal flooding through implementation of the Risk MAP program.”

FEMA requested detailed information, like base map data that included topography, building footprints, parcel data and tax assessor’s data. The discovery form also requested information on coastal data, historical flood data and risk assessment, flood mitigation information and community plans and projects.

The form was also used to prepare participants for the Discovery Meetings scheduled for St. Clair County.

“This discussion will allow us to better identify local coastal flood hazard needs and subsequent Risk MAP regulatory and non-regulatory products and datasets that can be delivered during the Risk MAP project,” the data request form stated.

Contact Jeri Packer at (586) 716-8100, ext 302; or on Twitter @JeriPacker.

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