Flood Control or Fed Land Grabbing?

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Flood Control or Fed Land Grabbing?

Aging maps don't warn homeowners about flood dangers
By Associated Press, 6/16/2002 17:27PHILADELPHIA (AP) Tom and Emily Nicholas had no idea that their Montgomery County home could be at risk for flooding. According to the federal flood plain map, it wasn't. But two creeks, the Mill and the Pennypack, pass within a mile of the Upper Moreland Township home. In the 1980s, water began lapping at neighbors' yards. Hurricane Floyd inundated houses next door in 1999. Then, a year ago, Tropical Storm Allison sent a foot of water into their home, causing $20,000 damage. Government officials, having determined that the Nicholas home will almost certainly be flooded again, on Thursday agreed to buy their home which is in the lowest-risk zone according to the flood plain maps. Aging government maps identifying flood-prone neighborhoods have become outdated due to growth and no longer warn homeowners whether their property could be endangered by rising waters, a newspaper reported. Updating and digitizing the records might help but would cost millions of dollars. For the last three decades, a gigantic set of U.S. government maps identifying flood-prone neighborhoods in 20,000 communities have been used as a guide for people buying, building and insuring homes. But at least two-thirds of the flood maps kept by the Federal Emergency Management Agency are more than 10 years old, and one-third are more than 15 years old. Pennsylvania's 2,400 maps are an average of 18 years old, according to an analysis by The Philadelphia Inquirer in Sunday's editions. New Jersey's 500 maps average 19 years of age, the paper said. But in high-growth areas such as Philadelphia, development has consumed open space at a rate of an acre an hour, the paper said. Storm runoff that once seeped into the earth now goes into creeks not always able to hold the volume. And flood plains appear in new places, especially downstream from new building. Jeff Featherstone, former deputy executive of the Delaware River Basin Commission, said there are probably thousands of homes now located in flood plains not noted on FEMA maps. ''All we can do is guess,'' he said. The maps themselves warn that after publication, ''flood hazards may change significantly in areas experiencing urban growth.'' Officials say the maps ideally should be updated every five years, but are often based on old data. In Delaware County, for example, the hydrological and hydraulic studies were done in the 1970s. In New Jersey, Camden's was last updated in 1981, Collingswood's in 1982, and Sea Isle City's in 1983. Richard Barton, director of code enforcement in Upper Dublin, Montgomery County, no longer relies on the 1995 FEMA map on his wall to predict flooding. Builders are now required to do their own flood plain studies of sites. FEMA spokesman Mark Stevens said the problem could be solved by updating the entire map inventory and digitizing it for easier public access. That would cost $800 million, but could prevent $48 billion in property damage over the next 50 years, Stevens said. He called the Bush administration's proposed $300 million for remapping in the 2003 budget ''a dent.'' ''It's more than a dent it's an excellent down payment,'' said U.S. Rep. Joseph Hoeffel. D., Pa., who calls the project an ''important investment for the federal government.'' Kerry Wilson, a policy specialist in the Governor's Center for Local Government Services in Harrisburg, calls the FEMA maps ''probably the weakest link'' in the state's flood-fighting efforts. Wilson especially worries about a new trend of communities that restricted building in vulnerable areas outside defined flood plains now seeking more room for development, barring construction only at FEMA boundaries. The idea has been broached in Montgomery County's Upper Providence, Whitpain and Horsham townships. Wilson said communities should be taking more precautions, not fewer. ''We can't let our guard down,'' he said. [url=http://www.boston.com/dailynews/167/region/Aging_maps_don_t_warn_homeown...