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Scituate hopeful of flood map appeals as map approval deadline looms

Posted by Jessica Bartlett  December 31, 2013 03:51 PM

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Scituate officials said the town may be forced to accept the new FEMA flood maps currently under appeal, or risk losing all financial support from the federal organization.

The flood maps have added hundreds of homes to the flood zone in numerous coastal communities. Other homeowners have seen their flood insurance premiums skyrocket.

Though federal and state legislators are hoping to have the maps amended or appealed by February, inaction would force Scituate Town Meeting to potentially accept the maps in the spring.

“Unless they have a change of giving us reprieve, or outright withdraw the maps, that will be the decision before us,” said state Representative Jim Cantwell at a Scituate selectmen’s meeting on Dec. 17. “It’s an incredibly difficult position for us to be in. The citizens will say you’re telling us these maps are wrong ... but the federal government is saying you have to accept them.”

According to Cantwell, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, underwrites the National Flood Insurance program, absorbing some of the risk to keep rates low. Without it, Cantwell said rates could be 50 percent higher.

Flood insurance isn’t optional for many. Banks require mortgage holders with homes in the flood zone to have flood insurance.

“This is a typical example of how big government goes awry,” said Selectman John Danehey at the Dec. 17 meeting. “They are using a carrot or stick approach to say accept it or suffer the penalties, and it’s a shame.”

Denying the new maps could also jeopardize FEMA reimbursements the town receives when there is a disaster declaration, Cantwell said in a phone interview after the meeting. Currently, that money goes toward a variety of needs, including the cost of overtime for first responders, replacement of damaged vehicles, and helping towns maintain infrastructure.

Selectmen debated the legality of having Town Meeting accept a former version of the FEMA maps, most recently updated in 2011. Cantwell was optimistic it won’t come to that.

FEMA has until Feb. 1 to respond to a congressional request to withdraw the maps or delay the acceptance deadline, Cantwell said.

Additionally, legislation is pending to amend the “Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act” -- the federal mandate responsible for increased rates. The legislation would put a four-year freeze on new rate increases for homes used as primary residences that haven’t had severe, repetitive damage in the past.

Local appeals of the maps also look promising.

Engineers hired by Marshfield, Scituate, and Duxbury found several large errors in the flood maps, including an error made with stillwater elevation – the flood level that doesn’t include the effects of waves. Concerns were also raised about how FEMA modeled the physics of waves in flooding events.

Prompted by US Representative William Keating, UMass-Dartmouth researchers also performed an analysis of the maps and found a number of problems.

Engineers there recently found that the wave analysis used by FEMA was modeled after the Pacific Ocean, which has longer wave action that can build up for miles and precipitous drops in the ocean floor, which allow for bigger waves.

The Atlantic Ocean, meanwhile, has numerous impediments to waves due to the configuration of the coast. Gradual drops in the ocean floor also mean smaller waves.

All these things are working in the town’s favor as Scituate inches closer to the map approval deadline, Cantwell said.

“We’re trying to give people advice, saying we think Congress is going to act, but in the interim, the work you’ve done appealing the maps is the best defense we have,” Cantwell said to selectmen.

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