Wiped off the map by “double trouble”?

Sunday’s Sun Herald completes the picture of the double-trouble flood maps with two weekend stories that illustrate the challenges facing post-Katrina coastal Mississippi and Louisiana.

Admittedly, it’s also a challenge for those of us who live inland to understand how much control the federal government has over coastal property owners and their communities – much less the eventual impact this control has on a coastal state.

Consequently, it’s important to understand the stated purpose of the flood zone maps is to set flood insurance rates, regulate development in flood plains, and let people know about the risk they face.  It’s also helpful to be fluent in  FEMA-speak, which I’m not, or at least be familiar with two key terms A Zone (flood hazard zone) and V Zone (high flood potential velocity zones) and forgiving of my overly simple translation.

In Louisiana, FEMA’s new maps have triggered complaints from several parishes that the elevation data put too many towns in flood zones – guaranteeing they’ll never rebuild and recover from the hurricanes of 2005 and 2008.

If you recall Sop’s post, Political tap dancing Ground Zero style  the tap dancing took place in Bay St. Louis when much of that community was about to be mapped off the map, so to speak.  Let’s start with the update from Bay St. Louis.

FEMA’s maps were released after federal studies that followed Hurricane Katrina. Bay St. Louis then performed its own studies that contradicted the FEMA findings in eight categories. FEMA recently responded to the appeal and acknowledged problems in four of the eight areas, Moore said.

The result: “FEMA acknowledged that they needed to make changes or update 12 individual panels” in the maps, Mayor Eddie Favre said…

FEMA’s original proposed flood maps called for about 40 percent of Bay St. Louis to fall into V Zones and another 40 percent into A Zones, Favre has said. But after the appeal, the city administration now expects A Zones to expand to 60 percent of the city, and only about 10 percent to fall into V Zones.

That could mean giant savings on flood insurance. If built in a V Zone, Moore said, a new $200,000 home with $80,000 in contents would cost more than $6,000 per year to insure. But if that same area becomes an A Zone, the insurance cost would fall by about $5,000 annually.

The city now must decide whether to press further with its appeal and seek even bigger gains, but that will be costly. Favre estimated the cost of further appeals to run as high as $100,000.

Although Waveland and Hancock County government could also benefit from the appeals, Bay St. Louis thus far has covered the costs alone.

As of Jan. 2 the city had 30 days to answer FEMA’s appeal to its response. The result, Moore said, “could be broad, sweeping change” in the city’s future growth and development.”

Switching from the focus of saving money on construction and insurance, we move to Report: Upgrading FEMA Flood Maps Would Save Lives.

FEMA is wrapping up a five-year map modernization plan that had led to digital flood maps for 92 percent of the continental U.S. population, the National Research Council said. But even after $1 billion has been spent on the effort, only 21 percent of the population has maps which meet all of FEMA’s data quality standards, said the study, which was requested by FEMA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on disaster recovery, called FEMA’s upgrade of its flood maps “welcome, but long overdue.”

“However, even with a modernized plan, FEMA may continue to fail Gulf Coast residents if the agency does not seek input from local residents,” she said in a statement provided to The Associated Press. “An important part of the process is local participation to ensure the maps are accurate and represent the true topography of the land. Knowledge of the local terrain is an essential supplement to the science used to design new flood maps.

That bring us back to MR-GO and how the work of the Corps of Engineers has made some areas more vulnerable to flooding.  In Louisiana, the result is there are communities that may be wiped off the map while, in Mississippi, the outcome may be communities with fewer residents.

Brian Martin added testimony from Congressman Gene Taylor in a comment to my post  MR-GO where you think you’re going that provides some background as relevant today, if not more so, than it was when the Congressman stated his position in 2005.

One of the things that representing south Mississippi I would like to bring to your attention is that none of the plans call for growing the Louisiana coastal marshes on the Mississippi side of the Mississippi River Gulf outlet.

As someone who ran boats for the Coast Guard, as someone who actually went to high school and college in New Orleans, I am a bit more familiar with the Mississippi River Gulf outlet than most. I know that it has been under-utilized. It has also been a barrier to trying to get some fresh water on the marshes down in the St. Bernard Parish area…

And I for one, knowing that area, resent when the New York Times and others called it a wasteful project to replace the Industrial Canal locks.

Those locks are close to a hundred year old. There is a heck of a lot of barge traffic that has to wait for days to get through them. It is important to the entire commerce of the Gulf Coast that they be replaced.

But I would ask that they be replaced in a way that helps not just Louisiana, but helps get some fresh water, again, from the Mississippi River, starts rebuilding the coastal marshes south of there… I do think part of the problem that occurred, not only in Louisiana, but in Hancock County, Mississippi, is because those marshes in St. Bernard are due south of Hancock County. Had those marshes not eroded to the point they have, they quite possibly could have lessened the impact on places like Waveland and Bay St. Louis.

When erosion reduces the size of  a community, it also erodes a state’s economy and may even reduce the size of the population – at which point it also threatens to erode a state’s share of federal funds and it’s representation in Congress.

Double-trouble begets the possibility of more trouble than most can comprehend – including the Constitutional protection of property rights.

Photos added per reply to Steve’s remark about the natural elevation of Bay St. Louis in comments below (the first one I took a few weeks after Katrina appx two blocks off Beach Road; I’m uncertain about the others):22-waveland-bsl1baystlouisbeachblvdhousehotel-reed-bsl

18 thoughts on “Wiped off the map by “double trouble”?”

  1. I am a bit confused,

    Are you saying that the Bay St. Louis should not be in a special hazard area that has a 1% chance of being flooded every 100 years? Or that they should be and that FEMA should not cave in to political pressure?

    What type of event are you saying that Katrina is? A ounce every 200 year event, or a ounce every 50 year event? Or something in between.

    The problem as I see it is that much of the Eastern U.S. seaboard south of Virginia is equivalent to Bay St. Louis. It is more a matter of where, when, and what type of Giant Hurricane Hits, then a matter of local topography.

    If Katrina 2 comes to the area, it will be wiped out again. If it does not, it won’t.

  2. I’m sure I did confuse more than just you, Russell, (sorry) as I didn’t explain my use of “off the map” versus “off the face of the earth”.

    It is my understanding these new maps are intended to correct the problem with property lost to flooding from Katrina that was not in a designated flood zone and not covered by flood insurance.

    Unfortunately, the new maps have errors – and not just those for Bay St. Louis.

    As I understand it, some of the communities in coastal Louisiana have minimal eligibility for federal insurance/assistance in the future with the new maps – to the extent there may be little rebuilding and, further, that many of these areas have recently flooded to a greater extent than in the past.

    Although I agree the where/when/type of hurricane is a factor, I believe the issue at hand is how prepared and protected property owners/communities will be if the maps are not accurate – and there are serious concerns about the accuracy of the maps. Plus there’s the underlying issue of government funded projects that altered topography and increased flooding.

    Hopefully Sop and/or Brian can explain further and correct and/or clarify my understanding.

  3. The old maps were wrong. The elevations need to go up and the V-zone needs to expand. The dispute is over whether certain areas should require building to 21 feet above sea level or instead 20 or 19 or 18. Even at 18 the elevations would be higher than anywhere else in the U.S. FEMA estimates the 100-year flood elevation in Bay St. Louis to be about 18 feet before adding the wave heights. Where the waves would be 3 feet or higher, it would be a v-zone with stronger construction standards. The dispute is over areas a few blocks inland where the ground elevation is 12 to 15 feet above sea level. Everyone realizes that there will never be another house built on a slab at that elevation. The issue is whether they have to go up to 21 feet at wave standards or up to 18 to 20 at A zone standards.
    Meanwhile, the maps in Alabama and Texas still have 12 foot levels for the 100-year flood even though those places have had higher floods without a direct hit from an extraordinary storm.

    FEMA and NFIP are not being unreasonable here. The cities have the right to appeal, but the maps have to be based on the best scienctific data. The federal government is the one holding all the risk. Federal taxpayers spent billions in NFIP claims, homeowner grants, etc. They have a right to expect the reconstruction to reduce the risk in a reasonable manner.

  4. Thanks, Brian, I think the issue is are the maps based on the best scientific data.

    During Thursday’s coastal authority meeting, Roy Dokka, director of the Louisiana State University Center for GeoInformatics, pointed out what he said were serious flaws in FEMA’s information and computer models.

    “These models are just models. They’re not reality,” Dokka said.

    Dokka said LSU’s researchers have a better handle on how to obtain accurate elevations in southern Louisiana parishes. He said FEMA did not ask him to review the new DFIRM maps.

    The differing standards applied to Mississippi vs Texas and Alabama – or any states for that matter – should be an issue but it wasn’t mentioned in any of the articles.

    I agree the federal taxpayers have a right to expect risk reduction, Brian.

    However, flood victims are federal taxpayers, too, and those who experienced flooding/increased flooding because of a federal project have the right to expected the government won’t increase their risk and their cost. (construction/insurance)

  5. There is anouther issue was fits nicely into the issue. That is the issue of federal subsidies for water and sewage. To make the matter even more complex the federal government has a problem with the manner inwhich coastal areas qualify for help in developing water and sewage infastructure.

    Developers and environmentalist have partnered to lobby the federal government to help communities place federally subsidized water and sewage treatment facilities in the lowest elevation land in our community. Why? Because for developers it is has been the best land in terms of demand as the lowest land in our community is also cheap waterfront land. For environmentalist the draw is that by having water and sewage the land does not polute the environment with sewage waste.

    What we end up with is having our infastructure for water and sewage in land where insurance is not easily available. While areas which are further from the Coast line have no sewage because the land is not wetlands and thus does not qualify for the federal subsidy for development. This has resulted in having a developmental footprint which is messed up to say the least. This problem continues.

    So the coordination needs to be better between infastructure, insurance and development. I agree with Brian about the need to reduce risk by have proper height requirements. I’m just pointing out that the issue is even more complex than one could imagine.

  6. I don’t know enough about the dispute in Louisiana, but the quote you picked out above is disputing being in the flood zone at all. I can’t agree with that. People in coastal areas need to buy flood insurance and build houses to survive. Don’t assume there will be another Road Home program next time.

  7. I read it as a map dispute – which could mean anything wrong. People in coastal areas (and a lot of other places, too) do need to buy flood insurance but not everyone on the Coast needs to build a tree house.

  8. Nowdy you really are a quick study and you have a good ability to pull things together. One more thing you need to know about Bay St. Louis. We are not trying to build on the lowest point on the Gulf of Mexico and stick it to the taxpayers next hurricane. Just the oppoosite we are trying, rather unsuccessfully, to redevelop the HIGHEST point on the Gulf of Mexico.

    “The picturesque little city is perched on a bluff above the Mississippi Sound and the Bay of St. Louis. The bluff rises to 31 feet above sea level, making it the highest elevation at the water

  9. I’m so glad you mentioned the natural elevation. I searched my pictures but guess I didn’t download the ones showing the variation in damage to the houses sitting right on the bluff.

    If the community sits that far above sea level, why would any elevation at all be required? It seems like it would increase the likelihood of wind damage.

  10. Very good question. First, let me explain that the 23 foot elevation is inclusive of the height of the land. So for most of the City we can build without much additional cost or we can build on grade. I myself live on the so called bluff area so its not a direct impact on me. However–

    The short term problem is people don’t know how high, if at all, they have to rebuild so it has slowed community redevelopment. Long term if we have to build 10 feet higher than the rest of the Nation than our housing cost will be the highest on the Gulf of Mexico. Because it cost upwards of 100 grand to build up 10 feet for a typical 2300 foot house.(at least that is what someone I know was quoted for his house).

    Some areas should not be rebuilt and this is sad for those people. I do not support rebuilding in one particular area of town which is very low and probably should have never been developed to begin with. This area was actually not very populated till about the year 1999 when the community received a huge federal grant to provide sewer for the area. Prior to that the County had a moratorium on new construction in that low lying area due to the land not being able to sustain septic systems. The reason the area got sewage was because the fed’s wanted to clean up the water in areas which could not sustain septic sewage. Areas which were north of 1-10 applied for sewage but were turned down due to their land being higher and the soil being of a better grade-thus being able to support septic sewage treatment facilities. However, the lot size has to be about 3 acres for a septic system if you don’t have city water and 1 acre if you do. So the footprint for building is not economic.

    So people built on the waterfront where the sewage was and now are going to be told in effect to not build there. Yet we will have sewage there and no houses. We have to pay for that sewage, by the way, but have no customers to do so. Fed’s only pay part of cost. So its really a mess.

    Initially we didn’t get funding for sewage north of 1-10 post-katrina. This may have changed with the latest funding from Haley Barbour if I’m not mistaken. This is an area which does not have flooding issues. It is ideal for development.

    Nowdy I go into detail because this is an issue which is probably not isolated to our community. The government will pay for sewage in low lying areas but then tell you not to build there. Yet in higher areas they won’t pay for sewage but then they tell you “why don’t you build on that high land.” Its really a pisser.

    Brian is correct to let people know the impact our building has on the rest of the Nation. We need to be responsible. However, being selected for special treatment by the government just doesn’t set well with most. We want the same opportunities and responsibilities the rest of the Nation have.

  11. One more point which is very essential to all this Nowdy is this. The only long term solution to the problem is to have more responsible risk assumption by the community. So the process of getting higher building heights is VERY GOOD. What is not good is to have one area of the county have almost double anouther area in terms of that building height requirement. Its more than not fair its poor community planning. So Brian is correct in the statement that WE need highter building heights. But the point Russell was making is that its not just US that need higher heights. Its everyone. My point is simply that FEMA may be wrong in their assessment and they may have some other motives. One would be to cover their butts if we get hit againt by a Katrina style storm this year. One other is that many people who work in that field are environmental activist. They don’t want development anywhere near the water because they feel its bad for the environment. So we may a little of both environmental activism and butt covering in the standards. What we need is good comprehensive studies which focus on the RISK and not on the butt or environment. Hope this helps.

  12. Thanks, Steve. I found a few pictures and realized all areas were not at that elevation. I took these right after Katrina and hope you recognize the street. (I’m going to add them to the end of my post shortly).

    It’s 3.5 years after the storm and some people have repaired their homes while others either can’t afford to or are waiting to be absolutely certain they meet the new requirements. It’s impossible for a community to rebuild when its residents have not. It was crazy, IMO, to put so much money into schools early on as there was no way of knowing if there would be a neighborhood for them to serve.

    Early on there was talk of a government buyout of those who owned property in the “low land” but I’ve not heard that mentioned in years. I know that was done in Iowa as I recall a news story featuring comments from those who had been relocated talking about how they would have been totally underwater in the recent flood.

    There certainly isn’t economic justification for having the most costly rebuilding requirements in the nation for the nation’s poorest state. However, until there is an end to the uncertainty about the requirements, I think it will be impossible to get the community to accept the inevitable

    If I’m not mistaken, I think some communities in Louisiana are possibly facing worse – most, if not all, property in areas too low to rebuild.

    Everyone wants to rebuild what was lost, have their old neighbors back, and pick up where they left off; and, it just is not going to happen.

    The problems you describe with water/sewage systems are appropriately enough, a real piece of what you should be able to flush.

    I’m just so sorry.

  13. Its OK about the sewage. The point of that is we don’t want sewage in our lowest lying areas. We want it on the high ground. We want to reduce our risk because we are the ones suffering. A our Mayor points out in this article. We want it right—

    “I have a responsibility (as an engineer) to ensure public welfare and safety,” he said. “… I knew how much (the maps) financially affected the community. But, it wasn’t a financial issue … it was a matter of getting it right.”

    I thought you might not have this news. It seems FEMA has come to terms with our city and admitted they didn’t actually visit here to come up with their model. Many of the people working on our flood elevation maps had actually never been to our City before so they really couldn’t get the information they needed to do the job right. Here is the article from our local newspaper—

    Bay wins FEMA flood map battle
    By Meaghan Chapman
    Jan 23, 2009, 17:50

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    Against odds, the city of Bay St. Louis’ costly appeal of FEMA’s proposed flood elevation maps appears to have yielded significant cost reductions for both current and prospective residents.
    Neel-Schaffer Senior Engineer Michael Moore said Mayor Eddie Favre’s inkling that “something wasn’t right” with FEMA’s preliminary flood zone data for the city in 2007, set wheels in motion for Bay engineers and city officials to begin their own analysis of the data. FEMA’s recently revised maps

  14. Steve you didn’t see me take that $100K price quote. For a house my size somewhere between $40-$50K for CMUs is about right. All that said I know several ppl that have 6 figures in retaining walls and elevation costs. It is not hard to run up a big bill coming out of the dirt to meet the new height requirements.

    For me personally post Katrina flood mitigation was not an issue. We need good maps, everyone from Brownsville Texas to Bar Harbor Maine needs them.

    Excellent post and commentary.


  15. The high point of Garden City, SC ( a part of the Myrtle Beach metro-plex) is 9′. A number of buildings on the beach are raised, but there is a tendency to build small storage areas under the raised portions which defeats much of the pass through effect of being up on piers.

    South Carolina is not hit all that often (they usually miss and hit NC), but when she is hit they tend to be coming right out of the tropics and hit hard.

    Miles and miles of this:


    –which unlike MS, does not even have a road between the construction and the beach.

    Of course as you go further North you tend to get mile and miles of this:


    More problematic. Probably relatively safer, but people tend to like and ride out the storms in these structures because they view them as immune to the storm surge.

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