EDITOR’S NOTE: Second of two parts.
By JOY BROWN
Findlay’s attempt to enroll in a flood insurance rate-reduction program, a quest that has lasted more than five years, has become increasingly urgent as premium increases begin to take effect.
But the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administers the National Flood Insurance Program, has so far stymied the city’s efforts to enroll by demanding more information about certain flood-prone properties, and at times not responding to city officials for several months.
“I’ve given every bit of information that I can. If there are still outstanding issues that we need to talk about, then let’s do it,” Todd Richard, Findlay’s flood plain manager, has told the agency.
“It’s really important we participate in this because flood insurance premiums are going up” as provisions of the federal Biggert-Waters Act take effect, he said.
The Community Rating System rate-reduction program rewards points to communities for flood plain management that exceeds the National Flood Insurance Program’s requirements.
The more points a community earns, the larger the premium discount received by residents who have flood insurance. Discounts can range from 5 to 45 percent.
Ottawa has been in the rating system since 1995 and the village receives a 5 percent discount.
Findlay hasn’t been able to get to the enrollment stage.
According to email exchanges between Findlay officials and FEMA representatives in Chicago, the agency has suggested that the city hasn’t always adhered to its own rules for repairing flood-damaged structures.
The agency also says the city has yet to prove that some properties in the western part of the Hunters Creek subdivision, which the city removed from flood maps about a decade ago with federal permission, were made “reasonably safe from flooding” by being properly elevated.
Enrolling in the Community Rating System entails rigorous recordkeeping, city and state officials say. For participating communities, annual evaluations are conducted.
Of 750 jurisdictions in Ohio in the National Flood Insurance Program, only 15 are in the Community Rating System, said Christopher Thoms, insurance program coordinator for the state Department of Natural Resources.
“It’s not a cakewalk to get in,” said Thoms, who has assisted Findlay with its effort. “It can be daunting.”
Of 1,211 nationwide participants, only four have reached the 45 percent discount rating.
Member communities receive points for activities such as flood preparation, distributing public information, and enforcing flood regulations that reach beyond FEMA’s standards.
Findlay has yet to advance to the rating system’s application stage because FEMA has not provided it with a “letter of good standing,” city officials said.
It isn’t just one property or neighborhood that concerns the federal government. After a day-long tour of Findlay by FEMA representatives in March 2012, the agency asked for additional information on 153 structures scattered around the city.
More than half of them are located in the Hunters Creek subdivision on Findlay’s east side.
Seventy-eight parcels in the subdivison’s 8th, 9th and 10th additions, which the city previously removed from a flood map, are being questioned. The flood map identified areas that are below the “base flood elevation” and would be underwater during a 100-year flood.
FEMA is demanding documentation about soil type on the 78 parcels, compaction measurements and other engineering details.
Concerns expressed years ago by a Hunters Creek resident appear to have piqued FEMA’s interest in the subdivision.
In 2009, Connie Krueger of 690 Colt Drive started asking the city and FEMA why her family’s basement, which accounts for about half of the living space in her home’s split-level floor plan, flooded badly in 2007.
She researched the subdivision’s building history, located flood and development maps, and acquired paperwork on flood map revisions. Then she contacted FEMA and Findlay officials.
She contended that the city, with FEMA’s permission, should not have certified the parcels as “reasonably safe” from flooding, and should not have allowed Hunters Creek developer James Koehler to construct basements on parcels after they were removed from the 100-year flood map.
Records show most land in question was elevated above the flood zone by mere inches. The land was then removed from the flood map before houses were built on them.
All but two of the 53 houses built in those three additions have basements, according to information Richard provided to FEMA.
The basement loophole is one that FEMA has since addressed.
In an updated National Flood Insurance Program handbook, it stated, “It has become a common practice in some areas of the country to fill an area to above the base flood elevation and then … remove the land from the flood plain. Once the land is no longer in the flood plain, the builder obtains permits to build residences with basements below the base flood elevation.”
The agency now requires basements to be built above the base flood elevation.
Richard said the requirement seems “to pertain to building standards regulated by a building code,” which Findlay doesn’t have.
Records show Richard and former Findlay engineer Brian Hurt, responding to Krueger and FEMA, also said Hunters Creek “has a drainage problem, not a flooding problem.”
The city’s answer to it was a $500,000 drainage project completed in 2011 to rid the neighborhood of floodwater quicker. Findlay contributed $205,000, and residents are being assessed for the balance.
Richard also said the August 2007 flood was unusual in that it exceeded the 100-year flood level, and inundated places like Hunters Creek that typically don’t flood.
A 100-year flood has a 1 percent chance of being equaled or exceeded in any given year.
“The bottom line here is no one is safe from flooding” in Findlay, Richard told FEMA. “Maybe the only solution here is to either prohibit all basements, or prohibit a basement on property that was once” on a flood map.
Flood repair permits
FEMA also has concerns about some of the permits issued by the city for repair work done on houses after floods. The agency also questions the city’s “substantial damage” designations for structures on Shinkle Street, East-View Drive, Fishlock Avenue and other streets.
For instance, the agency has asked about home values used, and noted discrepancies between repair costs listed on permits and damage claims submitted to insurance companies. It also has questioned handwritten receipts for repairs.
Richards claims some of FEMA’s expectations are impossible to meet.
Repair permits have become complicated when subsequent floods damaged the same structures, sometimes before repairs were completed from previous damage.
He conceded that some shortcuts were occasionally allowed when floods repeatedly hit the city and owners scrambled to make repairs before mold caused more damage.
“Given the number of structures damaged in each event with little time in between, there was no possible way to determine what state of repair each structure was at the time of each new event in order to calculate damage cost,” he told FEMA.
And “as much as I tried, I know that not every ‘substantially damaged’ property was detected,” he said. Some owners didn’t want the stigma of collecting federal money for repairs, Richard said.
“There are properties that may have been substantially damaged that we didn’t detect, but it sure wasn’t because of lack of effort,” Richard said.
“My biggest issue is trying to find out who had damage and how much before they did repairs,” he said.
FEMA has even requested dollar amounts for volunteer labor and donated materials used following several floods that substantially damaged property.
“To know the number of volunteers and the number of hours spent on the cleanup effort is impossible for me to track or verify,” Richard responded. “Most homeowners did not document the number of volunteers that were on site or how many hours were spent on the cleanup effort.”
The quest continues
Richard is not giving up, though.
“Although our execution of the system has not been perfect, our community is worthy of participation in the Community Rating System program,” Richard told the agency.
Thoms from the state agrees.
“I have seen on the part of the city reasonable and conscientious consideration of the law,” Thoms said.
“Todd is meticulous about keeping track of things. The city does a fine job of not only enforcement, but of tracking how they’re doing it. Findlay would be a very strong Community Rating System participant,” he said.
“Keep in mind this is not the application that’s taken this long,” Thoms said. “It’s that their (Findlay’s) application eligibility is being held off.”
Thoms, who spent his first 10 years with the state working as a Community Rating System coordinator, said Findlay’s effort to enroll seems particularly drawn out.
“I don’t know of any precedent in the state where this protracted of a review has been faced,” Thoms said.
Richard said he’ll continue to pursue enrollment.
When asked when Findlay might receive an answer, FEMA would only say that it is working with the city to “address and resolve any outstanding issues.”
“I’m not pointing fingers here. I understand that we all have a workload to handle. FEMA can be overwhelmed with things that can happen. But I believe the response here is lacking,” Richard said in January.
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National Flood Insurance Program:
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