Local view: FEMA’s inaccurate flood zone maps costing homeownersJust to be clear, I am not a member of the tea party. While I support efforts to trim wasteful government spending, I do not affiliate with an organization that wants to cut food stamps that alleviate child hunger after it wasted billions of taxpayer dollars by forcing last October’s government shutdown.
By: David McGrath, Duluth News Tribune
Just to be clear, I am not a member of the tea party. While I support efforts to trim wasteful government spending, I do not affiliate with an organization that wants to cut food stamps that alleviate child hunger after it wasted billions of taxpayer dollars by forcing last October’s government shutdown.
But when a federal program hurts rather than helps its constituency, I agree that the growth should be surgically removed like a malevolent cancer.
I am referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Flood Hazard Mapping Program. After FEMA’s disastrous performance in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina under the administration of Michael Brown (nicknamed “Brownie” with premature praise from President George W. Bush, who later had to accept his penitent resignation), FEMA undertook to update and digitize its floodplain maps in order to identify all flood-prone houses before future storms. It had cost FEMA so many millions of assistance dollars after Katrina’s storm-surge destruction that FEMA resolved henceforth to protect itself by shifting financial responsibility, compelling banks to require mortgage holders to purchase flood insurance.
While its intentions were understandable, implementation by the behemoth agency, predictably, was disastrous.
By employing old data, old maps and unreliable contractors, FEMA produced new floodplain maps that are inaccurate to the point of being ridiculous. The end result has been that if you own a home remotely near a river or lake, as so many of us do up north in Minnesota and Wisconsin, you can prepare yourself to pay between $800 and $4,000 for what can only be called a “FEMA tax” — all because of the agency’s shoddy work.
This warning is not based on hearsay but on my experiences and the experiences of my neighbors in northern Wisconsin. In 2013 I was making preparations to sell my summer home on Moose Lake, east of Hayward, with painting, tree trimming and a garage sale, among other things. But when the local bank told me that the 23-year-old home “suddenly” was located in a flood zone, according to FEMA’s new maps, chances for a successful sale seemed doomed. The designation would scare away potential buyers because they would have to purchase flood insurance. And the cost of flood insurance recently skyrocketed because of the Federal Biggert Waters Act, which eliminated government subsidies for flood-
insurance premiums. In addition to the mortgage and annual tax payments a purchaser would assume, he’d also be compelled to pay thousands more for flood insurance.
Talk about a deal killer!
Except that it’s not the end of the story because my house was simply not in the floodplain. The Moose Lake area is one of thousands of regions in the country FEMA mapped incorrectly, according to engineers, surveyors and FEMA itself. So to undo FEMA’s mistake, I spent $800 for a surveyor to prove that my house was well above the high-water mark and to file a LOMA (Letter of Map Amendment) with FEMA to get the correction on record. Only then could I market my house with a flood-free designation.
The surveyor, by the way, said his company already had completed more than 400 LOMAs for homes in his area that FEMA placed in a flood zone. And of those 400, all but one confirmed FEMA was mistaken.
Bankers are aware of the unreliability of FEMA’s mapping, but they earn a commission when their borrowers purchase flood insurance, so they seem to be erring on the side of profit.
Of course, this debacle is not confined to Wisconsin and Minnesota, the lands of sky-blue and, occasionally, rising waters. Nationwide in 2011, more than 35,000 applications for LOMAs were sent in, and the majority was approved. That’s
$35 million to correct FEMA’s flubs. And that accounts for just one of eight years since Hurricane Katrina.
Meanwhile, FEMA is not compensating vindicated owners for filing fees and has no apparent plans to redo its maps correctly. So there is this entire industry thriving as a result of a governmental agency’s sloth and incompetence.
Are there any benefits to FEMA’s Flood Hazard Mapping Program? Surveying companies and banks love it for all the income it is generating. And a whole slew of new workers benefit since FEMA is outsourcing much of its mapmaking work to universities and businesses.
But taxpayers and homeowners are the ones paying. And they are paying for absolutely nothing.
Either a class-action lawsuit or an act of Congress is necessary to halt and dismantle the FEMA Flood Hazard Mapping Program. Until that happens, homeowners even remotely near water should consult FEMA’s website to discover whether their structures sit in a flood zone. If so, and if they plan to sell or refinance in the near future, they’d be well-advised to contact a surveyor to ascertain if the designation is inaccurate and to file an appeal.
David McGrath of Hayward is an emeritus English professor for the College of DuPage in Illinois and is the author of “The Territory.” Contact him at email@example.com.