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FEMA flood plain mapping near completion in north country

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Property owners along waterways in the north country are expected to see increases on flood insurance premiums, but there are no answers yet as to how much.

“Rates are changing,” said Karen Dunbar, National Flood Insurance Program customer service representative. “Premiums will go up.”

She didn’t know how much of an increase policy holders could see, but said, “Different elevations will get different rates. We can’t give a rate if we don’t know what the map is going to say.”

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, only about 20 percent of National Flood Insurance Program policyholders pay subsidized rates. Of those, 5 percent — those with subsidized policies for non-primary residences, businesses and severe repetitive loss properties — will see premium increases of 25 percent annually until their premiums are full-risk premiums.

To comply with federal law, the National Flood Insurance Program is awaiting the nearly completed FEMA maps, showing more accurate data to designate flood plains.

F. Anthony Keating, owner of insurance company H.D. Goodale Co., said there is limited flooding in the north country compared with other areas of the country. Few insurance agents in the area are experts on flooding.

National Flood Insurance Program personnel will provide training, however, to agents to help them with the anticipated changes.

Mr. Keating said property owners not previously considered in a flood zone, but included in the new map, should not see any immediate changes.

“They will be grandfathered in,” he said. However, the new law stipulates that new maps trigger a five-year process under which grandfathered policies are gradually raised to full-risk status.

Funding sources, Mr. Keating said, should not require insurance until something changes, such as a refinance or the sale of a home.

However, homeowners in newly designated flood zones who previously did not get flood insurance will be able to purchase it if they desire to do so.

Potentially, new inclusions or exclusions to the map could affect home value.

With approximately 90 percent of remapping complete in the state, area officials have met with FEMA and the state Department of Environmental Conservation to gather data to help create more accurate maps.

local data sought

Data will be provided to FEMA by local officials as well as collected from the use of Lidar, a remote sensing technology that measures distance by illuminating a target with a laser and analyzing the reflected light.

“This system provides for vertical accuracies, establishing a grade plus or minus nine inches over an entire rivershed area,” said Ward J. Dailey, Lewis County code enforcement officer.

It can be an especially useful tool, Mr. Dailey said, if used during times of flooding to view the patterns and to determine the water’s path.

Lidar will be used along the Black River, according Mr. Dailey, “as a vast majority, on previous maps, has no base flood elevation.”

In Lewis County, data collected have focused around Mill Creek through the village of Lowville, and Roaring Brook through the town of Martinsburg. A portion of both creeks runs through gorges.

Previous maps, created in the 1970s and ’80s, used distance from the water to determine the flood zones, Mr. Dailey said.

“They need to consider the contours of the land,” he said. “Some of these homes are on 90-foot cliffs. If it ever floods there, the rest of the world is in trouble.”

Martinsburg Town Supervisor Terry J. Thisse said he expected some residents to see reduced insurance rates after elevations are taken into consideration.

Mr. Thisse said homeowners, in the past, have been able to challenge the flood plain status as it affects insurance.

As a property owner along Mill Creek gorge, he hired a surveyor at a cost of approximately $350 to prove his property was not in danger of a flood.

The findings did not change the maps, but did help when applying for funding and insurance.

Another property owner on Mill Creek, Douglas J. Iseneker, challenged the finding of the previous map by hiring a surveyor.

His property is downstream from the gorge and does see flooding during the winter when, he said, snow removed from village streets is dumped into Mill Creek.

The elevation survey proved that while his lot may flood, his building was not in danger.

A $400 survey saved him $2,100 a year in premiums.

Yet another property owner on Mill Creek is looking forward to the potential of being removed from the map as a flood hazard.

In the past, he was denied funding based on the flood plain status.

“This place was built in the 1860s,” property owner William Houppert said. Only one time he knows of, he said, did the building ever flood.

When he and his wife, Judy, purchased the building, they were told a dam had been located upstream of their lot.

Sometime in the 1930s it broke, Mrs. Houppert said. “It took out a bridge and killed a few people on its way down.”

During that catastrophe, the basement of the building did receive floodwaters, they were told by previous owners.

some Effects are small

In Jefferson County, village of Black River Code Enforcement Officer David M. Lachenauer said changes to the flood plain would have only a “slight impact in the village.”

Flood plain mapping for the village already has been completed and a local law implementing the changes has been adopted.

A combined 35 residential and commercial properties will be removed from the flood plain and 16 will be added.

Among properties removed, 15 are on the Rutland side and 20 on the LeRay side of the Black River; of those added, 11 are in Rutland and five in LeRay.

In St. Lawrence County, the Ontario watershed extends into the town of Hammond and a chunk of the town of Morristown, but other sections of the county also could use an update of flood zones, county Deputy Planner Jason C. Pfotenhauer said.

“It is a big deal because the maps are so old,” he said. “It’s just that the maps are not as accurate as they could be with modern technology.”

Representatives of the city of Ogdensburg, along with town of Oswegatchie Code Enforcement Officer Timothy C. Tuttle, attended Thursday’s meeting with DEC and FEMA officials. Mr. Tuttle said he hopes redrawn maps can include other sections of the St. Lawrence River and Black Lake.

“We have no really clear flood elevations to work with,” Mr. Tuttle said.

Once the flood zones are updated, flood insurance premiums will rise for those required to buy it, Mr. Tuttle said.

“The system was going broke,” he said.

Rates will vary based on topography and wind flows, if flooding is more likely in one area than another.

“One side of a lake may pay more than another,” Mr. Tuttle said. “It’s quite complex.”

seeking rate-hike delay

Some lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., want to see the rate hikes delayed until FEMA can conduct an affordability study to determine that upstate residents won’t be adversely affected.

DEC is focused primarily on the new mapping requirements, though the agency has acknowledged that the changes could affect premiums.

“Flood insurance costs are based on many variables, including the flood zone and elevation of the lowest floor of a building. New flood maps generally change flood zones and flood elevations. That generally both adds and removes structures from the mandatory flood insurance purchase areas. Flood insurance is required as a condition of any federally backed loan for a structure that is in the high-risk flood zone,” Ms. King said.

There are also special construction standards that must be met if a house or business is within a flood plain.

The new Black River local law addresses some of those requirements.

Municipalities also use the data, Mr. Dailey said.

“Communities have an obligation to keep people safe,” he said. Using the data, zones will be established where building will not be permitted unless construction elevates the structure 3 feet above the flood plain.

FEMA estimates that structures built to National Flood Insurance Program standards, which dictate where a structure can be built, the elevation of a structure above a known flood plain or adjacent grade or for structures that have been floodproofed suffer 80 percent less damage than buildings that are not compliant, translating into a monetary value of more than $1 billion per year in reduced losses.

In New York, since implementation of the National Flood Insurance Program, approximately 1,500 communities now participate, according to FEMA statistics. FEMA has provided flood insurance rate maps to those communities to delineate special flood hazard areas.

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