THIS SECTION OF a current FEMA flood map shows River and Tower Roads in Callicoon. The shaded area represents the current flood zone, which will be changed to reflect the experiences of the last three floods.
FEMA's Changing Its Flood Maps
By Jeanne Sager
SULLIVAN COUNTY Three floods in three years have caught the attention of FEMA.
Now they’re coming to Sullivan County to map out a new hazard zone for flooding, based on the new heights water has reached in the past several years.
Each time flood waters washed through Sullivan County in 2004, 2005 and 2006, the numbers grew, from a 100-year-flood to the 500-year-flood of June 2006.
According to Mary Colvin, of FEMA’s region II, along the Delaware and Susquehanna river basins, some water flows in the June 2006 flood exceeded the 100-year-flood marker delineated on the national flood insurance rate maps.
In other words the maps showed no real threat of flood, but the water came anyway.
That’s why FEMA’s contracted with the URS Corporation to send surveyors out in the Delaware, Susquehanna and Mohawk river basins to remap the flood hazards.
“It’s the second largest project of its kind every undertaken by FEMA,” Colvin noted.
The $10 million project will include developing revised discharges for the 10-year, 50-year, 100-year and 500-year flood plains; developing geo-referenced hydraulic models of 538 river miles and Geographic Information System (GIS) based maps that show the floodplain boundaries and the floodway.
The Delaware will be covered from Hancock to Port Jervis, along with a number of its tributaries, including portions of the Beaverkill, the Willowemoc, East Brook, West Brook, Third Brook, the East Branch of the Callicoon Creek, Stewart Brook, Little Beaverkill and Cattail Brook.
Surveyors are already out in some of the areas, recording elevations, obtaining GIS coordinates and taking digital pictures of the immediate area.
Homeowners whose land will be crossed by the crews will be contacted individually, Colvin said.
“They’re not digging or disturbing anything,” she said.
She likened the work to the surveying seen on roadways where construction projects are planned.
When they finish up work next year, the information will be sent back to FEMA for hydrologic and hydraulic modeling and the creation of the new GIS-based maps.
The whole process is intensive, but less so than doing a full flood insurance study, Colvin noted.
Instead, these new maps will be rolled into the new flood insurance study and the elevations will likely appear on the national flood insurance maps in about three years time.
Colvin said these maps will be of a higher quality than anything currently available.
The flood boundaries will be more in line with data thanks in part to new technology FEMA used to use a grease pencil to draw the lines.
The fat point of the pencil resulted in 20 foot contours on maps scaled down so inches equaled miles.
The newer maps will have no more than 2 foot contours, Colvin said.
So even using the old data on these new maps would make a world of difference.
FEMA is pulling as much new data as possible, using the US Geological Survey and state flood level information along with its analyses.
The project is part of the federal government’s Hazard Mitigation Technical Assistance Program, something Colvin has been working hard to bring to the Sullivan County area.
People focused in on the devastation of Hurricane Katrina because it was so vast in such a small area, she said.
“But people in this country don’t understand how rural most of New York is,” she explained. “For these people, [the floods were] like their Katrina.
“Only these 2 1⁄2 million people aren’t all located in one place not like Biloxi and New Orleans,” Colvin continued.
Colvin takes issue with people who complain about the flood maps and the infrequency of floods.
“Just because you live there and it doesn’t flood doesn’t mean you aren’t at that risk,” she explained.
A 100-year-floodplain technically means that there’s a 1 percent chance of that base flood elevation being exceeded.
“Statistically, this flood should occur every 63 years,” Colvin said. “But we don’t say when a flood is going to occur.
“We just estimate when it does, it’s going to be this big.
“People don’t understand the level of risk when they haven’t been flooded,” she continued. “You can live in a floodplain and there’s a flood in your area, but that doesn’t mean it’s of the magnitude that we say you need to protect yourself from.”
The flood maps are to let people know what COULD happen, she continued.
The new maps, scheduled for completion next year, will be made available to municipalities affected.
Colvin said they are strongly urged to adopt the new maps.
If a community does not participate in the national flood insurance program, property owners in that jurisdiction are unable to purchase federal flood insurance.
Federal grants, loans, disaster assistance, and federal mortgage insurance are unavailable for the acquisition or construction of structures located in the floodplain as shown on the National Flood Insurance Program maps.
“If they don’t enforce these flood elevations when they become available, they’re putting people at greater risk,” she said.
Three years down the road, Colvin said the new information should be reflected by the National Flood Insurance Program.
By federal law, properties that carry a mortgage backed by a federally regulated lender or servicer must be covered by flood insurance purchased by the property owner.
FEMA estimates structures located in the Special Flood Hazard Areas have a 26 percent chance of suffering flood damage during the term of a 30-year mortgage.
Private insurance companies offer flood insurance plans, but its under a special arrangement by the federal government.
The rate is determined based on the elevation of a structure and the base flood elevation.
The new maps will likely effect cost, Colvin said.
“When you have flood levels that are 2 to 6 feet higher than the map, the flood elevations are likely going to change,” she warned.
That means people who aren’t necessarily in a floodplain now, who could purchase flood insurance at a lower rater than someone in the plain, should, Colvin said.
The maximum rate for folks in the “preferred zone,” currently not considered a flood risk, is in the $350-range according to one local insurer.
But insurers have written policies for Sullivan County owners in the $2,000 range.
Anyone who expects they’ll be in the flood zone when the maps change has a chance to get that “preferred” rate now and remain at that rate, said a representative of Mike Preis Insurance in Callicoon.