By John Mullen/contributing writer
When the freak rainstorm of April 30 through May 1 of 2014 hit Baldwin County, about 30 to 35 houses along the Fish River took on water.
“I think all but three of them were out of the flood zone,” Erik Cortinas, EMA coordinator for Fairhope, said. “On Fish River, it was nine feet above base flood.”
Now, with the release of new FEMA maps in July, most of those properties are considered to be in a flood zone.
“We have houses that have been removed from the floodplain that are not in a floodplain, per the new maps,” Cortinas said. “We have a bunch that were added to the floodplain that were previously not.”
Communities all across Baldwin County are experiencing the same scenarios as public meetings and outreaches begin to show residents what changed in the first revision of flood hazard zone maps since 2007. Cortinas hopes they will soon have more specific information.
EXPLORE THE NEW MAPS HERE
“The engineering consultant and the state said they would work on putting together a spreadsheet for each community identifying the parcels that left and what was brought into the floodplain per the new map information,” he said. “It would give us the ability to do some targeted outreach to talk specifically to people. Right now, it’s hard to do that because we don’t have any means to know what came in.”
Those new to the flood zone will have to consider whether they want to buy flood insurance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Flood Insurance Program.
Everybody should have flood insurance, Cortinas believes, and he has the devastation of Hurricane Harvey’s deluge of Texas and Louisiana to bolster his position.
“There are folks who are going to end up flooding and losing everything they have and are not in a flood zone,” Cortinas said. “They just experienced 50 inches of rain in a five-day period and their homeowners insurance is almost certainly not going to cover that damage. It almost always typically excludes flood.”
Cortinas led an Aug. 29 open house in the Fairhope City Council chambers to discuss the new FEMA flood hazard zone map and how it would affect residents here.
“Every so many years FEMA updates their flood maps to reflect current or more accurate hazards in different areas,” he said. “Usually it’s a three- to five-year process. This has actually been a 10-year process. The maps we are currently under are dated July of 2007.”
And while storms like Harvey are few and far between, coastal Alabama still gets its fair share of tropical events. Being the rainiest part of the country just adds to the flooding risk for residents in Baldwin and Mobile counties.
“Mobile, Alabama, is the rainiest place in the United States,” Cortinas said. It rains “on average 67 inches a year and 59 rain days a year. As of right now I have read we’re at 56 inches for the year now with several months to go.”
Cortinas said living in this rain-prone area is reason enough to have insurance.
“You do not have to live in a flood zone to purchase flood insurance,” he said. “I suggest to any and everybody I talk to: buy flood insurance. You have no idea what’s going to happen.”
Cortinas said number two and three on the rain list are Pensacola and New Orleans. But, he pointed out, most flood damage doesn’t come in the special flood hazard areas FEMA maps out.
“FEMA will tell you the majority — anywhere from 60 percent or more — of the flood losses they insure or pay out are in areas that are not designated flood zones,” Cortinas said. “They are low-lying areas with poor drainage. And if you think about it, it makes sense. If you build in a flood zone, you have a required elevation that your floor has to be at. So you are above the flood line.
“It’s the folks that are along the creek beds and along the drainage ditches in these areas that build on grade, slab on the ground. When the water rises they are the ones at the most risk.”
Recent published reports indicate the number of properties covered by flood insurance dropped from 5.5 million in 2012 to 5 million in 2016. The National Flood Insurance Program reports that only 28 percent of properties in high-risk areas have insurance.
The program operates at a $1.4 billion deficit and is currently facing a $25 billion debt, federal officials say. More residents and businesses joining the program would help the bottom line, and officials are afraid to raise the rates to help the bottom line for fear more people will choose to drop coverage.
“I have people ask all the time ‘what if I don’t want to buy insurance?’” Cortinas said. “Whether or not you intend to buy flood insurance when you’re in a flood zone is entirely up to you.” But you still have to follow the guidelines for building according to the FEMA flood hazard zone map, he said.
“The reasoning behind that from FEMA is if you allow noncompliance construction in a flood zone, that is potentially, in the event of a storm, debris that can damage other homes,” Cortinas said. “Anybody building in a flood zone has to meet the minimal requirements whether you choose to purchase insurance or not.”
Cortinas says that while the flood maps reflect FEMA’s regulations for flood zone building, local governments are the enforcement arm.
Fairhope and most other cities, Cortinas said, usually require even more than the minimum elevation from FEMA maps.
“We have a one-foot freeboard requirement on all flood zones,” Cortinas said. “You have to build one foot higher than the base flood on the map. Most communities have at least of foot of freeboard. There are some coastal communities that have two- and three-foot freeboards depending on what their concerns are.”
Cities all across Baldwin and Mobile counties are having community outreach meetings to discuss the preliminary new maps. A countywide meeting with FEMA and Office of Water Resources officials is scheduled for October at the Foley Civic Center.
Fairhope, by law, doesn’t consider the maps preliminary.
“Most communities use the maps the minute they are effective,” Cortinas said. “Our ordinances have a provision for best available data and, as of right now, this is the best available data we have.”
Residents and businesses have 12 months to present a letter of map amendment or a letter of map revision to FEMA if they disagree with the zoning of their property.
“You have the ability to put together the information and request to have it removed from the maps,” Cortinas said.
Following is a look at how the new flood maps will affect Eastern Shore and South Baldwin cities.
Residents on the bay got good news from the new FEMA maps. Inside the city and along dry creek beds, gullies and floodways, the news wasn’t so good.
“A floodway is a riverine channel that carries high-velocity water,” Cortinas said. “They mapped a lot of our inland creeks, dry creek beds and gullies. They are considered floodways because in rain events they carry heavy velocity.”
In previous flood maps, most of these floodways were never mapped and the possibility of flooding never determined.
“Cowpen Creek and a lot of the unnamed creeks in town, a lot of them have never been mapped,” Cortinas said. “It is now mapped and we have several subdivisions now that are fully built all the way along Cowpen Creek.”
Among the areas affected are Spring Lake subdivision and the back side of the River Oaks and Destrehan subdivisions, right through Fairfield Place. Also, Seacliff Drive, Quail Creek, Plantation Pines, Falls Creek and the Woodlands all are affected by dry creek beds or other floodways and saw changes in their flood hazard zone status.
“Waterhole Branch was also mapped for the first time, so the Fairhope Airport’s got a nice big floodway that goes right down through the bottom part of the runway,” Cortinas said.
On the bay, almost all of the bayfront property was taken out of the high-velocity zone. In those designated zones, the hazard is not just rising water, but wave action as well. A new high-velocity zone has been mapped in the area of Fly Creek and its outfall.
Cortinas also said there were several properties in Montrose that in 2007 got a revision or amendment on their property’s rating. He said those may have to be reapplied for if the map changed.
In 2018, Fairhope is going be part of FEMA’s Community Ratings System in 2018, which will allow residents to earn a 10 percent discount on premiums.
“They are going to come in and rate how we do things,” Cortinas said. “Fairhope is actually tailor-made for that program. It’s based on a point system. You get great points for public set-asides or flood zone lands. The Single Tax Colony did wonders for us by setting aside all of this bayfront property.”
The resort town saw some improvements on the beachfront, but some inland waterfront lots saw a rise in base flood elevation levels.
“If you go out to the beachfront, basically everything east of Turquoise is outside of the special flood hazard area,” EMA Coordinator Lannie Smith said. “Pretty much everything west of Turquoise, until you get to the city limit, it has gone from a base level of 12 to a base level of 15, with a few exceptions.”
Smith said that was what the level city ordinance was already requiring in those areas.
“The good thing about that is we’ve had a three-foot freeboard since 2002 so we’ve been building to 15, everything new on the beach,” Smith said. “I would be recommending to the city council that we continue to require freeboard.”
One area, Burkhart Drive, which is bordered by Bayou St. John and Johnson’s Cove, saw the biggest change on the new map.
“This new zone is catching a lot of these lots at the tip of Burkhart,” Smith said. “They’ll have to build to coastal standards. This is probably the most drastic change in the city. Toward Sportsman, that zone comes a good bit further north than it did.”
Bear Point, at the far east end of Orange Beach’s inland city limits, is historically flood prone and even has a special pumping system for storm water drainage. But some properties were removed from the flood hazard zone.
“Bear Point had some areas that were an AE zone with a base flood elevation of six,” Smith said. “Now it’s eight, nine and even a portion of North Bayshore Drive has gone up to 10. So, some people may be happy, some not may not.”
Orange Beach participates in FEMA’s Community Rating System and is at the Class 7 level. This designation gives residents a 15 percent discount on flood insurance.
Areas along the south side of Fort Morgan Road cause most of the concern in Gulf Shores, where the city requires a three-foot freeboard for new construction.
“After Ivan came through in 2005, it didn’t seem the FEMA requirements set for us south of Fort Morgan Road were adequate so we adopted a three-foot freeboard,” EMA Coordinator Brandan Franklin said. “That adds three feet to whatever FEMA requires. We put one foot on everything north of Fort Morgan Road.”
The new maps bring the base flood elevation up to the city’s required level.
“Basically, what FEMA’s doing south of Fort Morgan, they elevated their requirements three feet,” Franklin said. “So, the new maps basically put the base-level elevation requirements at what we were requiring.
“I want to make a recommendation to the council to decrease the three-foot freeboard south of Fort Morgan Road, and let’s just do a one-foot freeboard in all of the flood zone areas within the city of Gulf Shores and our permitting jurisdiction. It gives us an added layer of protection by adding that one foot.”
Gulf Shores is already at Class 8 in the community ratings system because of the added requirements, which allows for a 10 percent premium savings.
“We’re striving hard to go to a Class 7 category and that would give us 15 percent,” Franklin said. “By adding the one-foot freeboard this in no way guarantees we’ll go to a Class 7, but it gives us a better chance of getting there. For every foot above higher than FEMA’s required elevation, you will get some sort of discount.”
Chester Patterson, EMA coordinator with Spanish Fort, said there were no significant changes with the new flood maps in his city.
“Areas within flood-prone regions show to have slight changes, but nothing apparent to be of great concern,” Patterson said.
He noted the new maps give a better indication of the flood zones in Spanish Fort than the 2007 maps.
“Based on review, changes appear to reflect a better level of accuracy of the flood risks in Spanish Fort,” Patterson said. “The information will give the city a greater opportunity to evaluate properties at a higher level of detail within the flood-prone areas.”
Spanish Fort doesn’t participate in the Community Rating System, but is studying joining the program in the near future, Patterson said.
In Foley, EMA Coordinator Chuck Lay said the latest map saw a dramatic increase in areas of concern.
“I do not have an exact number. However, I estimate that our flood hazard area doubled,” Lay said. “We have a large increase in one major subdivision, Bay Forest, and a subdivision, Rivertrace, that is in a regulated flood hazard area for the first time.”
Foley received its first velocity rating, which indicates rising waters with wave action from one and a half to three feet on top. It is located on one of the points of the Bay Forest subdivision.
Lay said meetings with the public are planned to reveal the new maps to residents.
“Those outreach meetings will kick off soon,” he said. “I have been keeping several of the HOA leaders up to date on the status of everything.”
Foley participates in the Community Rating System and is at Class 8, which earns residents a 10 percent discount on premiums.
In Daphne, EMA Coordinator Richard Merchant said there were no changes in building height requirements, but some parcels were removed from the troublesome and expensive high-velocity zone.
“Daphne’s coastal elevations did not change, but 35 properties were removed from the VE Zone,” Merchant said. “There were 12 properties removed from the special flood hazard areas. I don’t foresee any adverse effects in Daphne from the map changes.”
Daphne is not in the Community Rating System program, but Merchant said officials are in the process of enrolling.