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Scituate, Marshfield residents assail new FEMA flood maps

Posted by Jessica Bartlett  September 5, 2013 03:07 PM

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Jessica Bartlett

(Above) Hundreds of residents came out to Furnace Brook Middle School in Marshfield on Wednesday discuss changes to FEMA flood maps and insurance premiums. (Right) FEMA representatives and engineers said they could explain the findings but could not change the process.

Hundreds of Scituate and Marshfield residents came out Wedneseday to protest the large jumps in flood-insurance rates that are expected from the new flood maps created by the Federal Emergency Management Agnecy.

Communities have 90 days to appeal the changes, set to be finalized on Oct. 16. The changes have sent local officials and residents into a tizzy, as insurance rates could in some places cost more than property taxes.

“Marshfield didn’t get maps with assumptions until last Monday,” said State Representative Jim Cantwell, adding Scituate hasn’t had them much longer. “…We don’t have enough time. It took three years to get these maps together, we’re given 90 days to respond.”

Cantwell pleaded with US Representative Stephen Lynch, who attended the Wednesday meeting at a Marshfield school, to enact some type of legislation to halt the approval process, allowing for studies to be conducted on how widely the changes would affect residents.

Lynch asked FEMA representatives at the meeting to extend the timeline, but was told the engineers don't have the authority to make changes, only to explain the findings.

Lynch said his office will look into filing an injunction to halt the new maps and increasein rates until the full ramifications could be understood and the science questioned.

Cantwell also requested a peer review of the engineering done to determine the new flood zone. Currently, an appeal by residents has to use the scientific data provided by FEMA engineers..

“The still-water assumptions need peer review. We’re afraid they got it wrong,” Cantwell said.

Changes to the maps were the result of a 2009 congressional authorization asking that all coastal community flood zones be reevaluated by FEMA.

The changes have added 500 properties in Scituate to the flood plain, and hundreds more in Marshfield.

Alongside that, a 2012 congressional mandate known as the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act changed how the National Flood Insurance Program is run.

Within the National Flood Insurance Program, rates have been raised to reflect what FEMA has determined is the true flood risk of coastal properties and to make the program more financially stable.

For homeowners, that means grandfathering and premium rates will be abolished over time, with new rates to take effect based on new flooding modeling.

According to Brian Caufield, a lead engineer of the new Flood Plain Maps and project manager and coastal engineer for the Plymouth County study, the biggest change is in how FEMA determines flood risk.

In the past, modeling was only based on still water elevation, what is colloquially known as “storm surge.” More recent modeling has also factored in wave set up, or how the physics of a wave push the water to the shore and thus elevate the water level in a storm.

With those two criteria, FEMA has modeled a worse case scenario, predicting a “base flood elevation.” Those flood level predictions anticipate what flooding could look like in the one percent annual chance flood, or the one percent chance a storm could reach this level in any given year.

According to Caufield, the modeling has subsequently become based on risk analysis rather than a topographic analysis, enlarging the flood zone.

For audience members, the highly technical data flew in the face of common sense.

“I live five miles from the beach. I can’t see water; I see a hill two miles away,” said Jack Sullivan who lives on Salt Meadow Waye in Marshfield. “Blizzard of ‘78 never touched my house. There has never been a wave anywhere near me. No Name Storm didn’t have water in my basement once … and now [engineering firm] STARR thinks [the flood elevation is] 15 [feet above sea level], coming in my second floor window … And I’m mad. I’m going to lose $4,000-$6,000 a year, and I’ve never had a drop of water.”

Residents will see an increase in flood rates to approximately $9,500 a year if their houses are four feet or more below the new base flood elevation. For residents at the new base flood elevation, rates will increase to $1,410 a year. For those three feet above or more the flood elevation, rates will be at $427 a year.

The new rates will affect everybody, even residents who have already raised their homes higher than the old levels, but don't meet the new criteria. For existing homeowners with flood insurance, rates will increase gradually to the new levels.

At Wednesday's meeting, some residents said they wouldn’t be satisfied unless higher insurance rates could be averted altogether.

“You’re delaying a catastrophe,” said one Marshfield resident.

Regardless of next steps, coastal homeowners were strongly encouraged to look at where their homes fell in the new maps and understand how they would be affected.

For more information, click here.

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