Frankly I’m surprised the Bay St Louis NFIP letter contraversy is just making the Sun Herald but then again I recall only one short report on the same topic from WLOX a few weeks ago. I’m going to be completely honest and say I’ve been ducking this issue for weeks because the implications for impacted residents are severe despite the double talk coming from Bay St Louis city officials. Unfortunately if you are an impacted homeowner looking for straight answers, you’ll find none in the JR Welsh report on the topic in today’s Sun Herald which focuses on political finger pointing instead. First we’ll begin with the reporting which conveys some facts and then I’ll give some analysis including what I tell my paying clients from the area:
Hundreds of homeowners here are scratching their heads after receiving letters informing them they must either elevate, tear down or move their houses more than three years after Hurricane Katrina.
The letters were mailed to property owners by the city’s Building Department at the behest of the federal National Flood Insurance Program. About 1,300 of the letters have gone out over the last two months or so, city officials said.
The ominous letter informs property owners a “Substantial Damage Determination” found their property, located in a special flood-hazard area, had suffered hurricane damage in 2005 that equals or exceeds 50 percent of the current market value. Their options: Tear down the house, raise it higher or move it.
The problem is, the letters mean essentially nothing, a city official said, even though the communication has caused widespread confusion. Officials are now telling homeowners to “disregard the letter, but keep it,” said city Operations Manager Buz Olsen.
At least one City Council member acknowledges FEMA, not city officials, is ultimately responsible for the letter. But Ward 2 Councilman Jim Thriffiley said he wants more answers.
“That was stupid. That’s the only way to describe it,” he said. “This is a federal deal, for somebody to write a report and say, ‘I’ve done this and that.’ It’s worse than immoral.”
Letter recipients were urged to make an appointment with the Building Department and were told they may qualify for up to $30,000 under their flood insurance policies to help with the cost of elevating, removing or dismantling their homes.
Long before the letter was mailed, many owners already had spent thousands to rebuild their homes since the hurricane. Others who lost their homes in Katrina have left the area or simply have no intention of rebuilding on the old site.
Some property owners who got the letters “panicked,” Olsen said: “Unfortunately, we sent them out to 1,300 homeowners. We mailed that two months ago. It should have been mailed two-and-a-half years ago.”
But he said federal officials gave the city no choice about sending the letter. And of the 1,300 recipients, it actually should have gone to “maybe 200 or 300,” Olsen said.
He said the letter was required under the Community Rating System, which allows homeowners who comply with federal flood requirements to receive discounts on flood-insurance premiums. “We were under the gun to get that letter out,” Olsen said. “We’re correcting that now.”
Under the same logic, city officials ordered last year that the Bayou LaCroix Marina on Mississippi 603 be forced out of business. Because the building fell below FEMA elevation requirements, allowing it to remain would have jeopardized flood-premium discounts for other city homeowners under the rating system, officials said at the time.
Thriffiley objects that the recent letters were unnecessary, and only added to the burden and stress for homeowners who already face skyrocketing insurance costs and higher taxes under a new county property reappraisal. The reappraisal was mandated by the state.
A year or so after the storm when my wife and I decided to eventually move back home to Hancock County instead of rebuilding in Harrison, we began the hunt for land in Bay-Waveland. We found a vacant lot (with slab) in a nice neighborhood close to the water where around half of the houses remained post Katrina. The price was right so we put in an offer subject to several contingencies. Word of the lot selling (and not at an inflated price) spread fast and within a day I received a phone call from my best friend with word from one of the existing homeowners. “Tell (Sop) we have covenants in this neighborhood and we don’t want any “fish camps” built here”. In local parlance any house that is raised qualifies as a fish camp and since the seller did not disclose any covenants I immediately called the local attorney I use there and inquired. The answer soon came back that this subdivision, within plain sight of the Mississippi sound, had a restrictive covenant that limited a homeowner essentially to a slab on grade. Aside from the manifest shortsightedness of such a restrictive covenant and given the results of slab living at 15 feet above sea level I was dumbfounded at the sheer stupidity involved with the “anti fish camp” sentiment. I flushed the deal and decided before I continued with the land hunt it would be wise to consult with local building officials, in this case my friend Otis who was volunteering in the City of Waveland’s building department.
“Those people are in denial” was the first words I heard. “Every house in that neighborhood was assessed at over 50% damage and one more insurance claim (and it doesn’t have to be a flood claim) will result in them being booted from the flood program.”
We eventually found a lot elsewhere that had no impediments to flood mitigation but the lesson of the conversation was not lost on me: Buy a Katrina damaged house and you take your chances.
That ugly truth was hammered home by Hurricane Gustav. I am familiar with one structure that flooded with a few feet of water with Gustav that was built after Katrina but before the new flood maps were issued that now must be torn down because it is non-compliant. The owners are now sitting on a 6 figure uninsured loss.
Is that letter NFIP mandated really meaningless to the homeowner/recipients? If it were truly meaningless Mr Olsen would not be advising people to save it. At a minimum it should serve as warning to those who now live below base flood in Katrina damaged structures they are living on borrowed time. No amount of sweet baby talk out of the Bay St Louis city officials can change that.
Finally does anyone remember a possible reason why those letters were mailed “two months ago” instead of “two-and-a-half years ago”. IMHO a possible reason would be the former Bay St Louis building inspector, whom Mayor Farve defended to the bitter end, was moonlighting for six figures consulting fees with the County instead of earning his full time salary with the City. The lack of leadership out of the Mayor’s office in Bay St Louis is simply astounding and one of the better kept dirty little secrets on our post Katrina coast.
While I’m on my soapbox I’ll add that as much as I personally respect and admire Councilman Thriffiley, the people in Bay St Louis would be far better served without the finger pointing. People can’t plan the future without good information. Instead of wasting energy finding who at City Hall mailed the mandated letters the public would be better served if they knew the true implications of life below “base flood”.
Finally some areas in Bay St Louis, especially the newly annexed areas, are far better off never being developed/redeveloped. A year ago I would have been shouted out of the room for saying that. Now post Gustav/Ike, people that have flooded out three times since Katrina understand why living on a slab at 6-8 feet above sea level is simply a bad idea.
I’ll close this post with the lone comment left on Mr Welsh’s story that shows the locals “Do C It”:
Olsen said the issue is typical of trying to wade through myriad federal requirements and complications that follow a hurricane. “We will be trying to decipher all this for years,” he said. Residents will also be trying for years to decipher all the new ordinances/codes that the building department makes up. An engineer’s signature/stamp necessary on your site plan for example. BSL City Council has been blaming their decisions and actions on FEMA and MEMA for over three years but those “in the know” know that the majority of those decisions and actions are made locally. No wonder recovery and rebuilding is progressing at a snail’s pace. Without new leadership this scenerio will continue.
Readers can direct their hate mail on this post to Proximo via slabbed. I’ll make certain he gets it. 😉