Before the Flood

Posted June 13, 2010, at 6:17 p.m.

The city of Portland recently prevailed in a showdown with the Federal Emergency Management Agency over a new map that would have classified part of the city’s waterfront as a high-risk flood zone. That’s good news for the city. But given factors such as climate change and the predictions of higher sea levels that come with it, and a hurricane cycle that is likely to bring a big storm to the Northeast in the next few years, FEMA’s capitulation may prove to be a devastatingly shortsighted move.

Last year, FEMA had the entire harbor in the high-risk flood zone, which would have prohibited new construction along the waterfront and stopped reconstruction of any buildings that had 50 percent or more destruction. The buildings in the flood zone also would have paid higher insurance rates. More recently, the FEMA designation was reduced to just the end of the Maine State Pier, which the city owns. That designation remains, but it will not affect the city’s efforts to redevelop the pier.

Portland was the first New England city to face the new mapping, which FEMA is undertaking along the entire East Coast. Other Maine coastal communities have faced updated FEMA regulations in recent years, and at times, the agency was inflexible. And its rules resulted in odd development outcomes, such as rendering the ground level of some buildings unfit for habitation.

Though science drives the mapping decisions, there is, of course, a political component that comes into play when the new rules are dramatically more restrictive, as was the case in Portland. Both Sen. Susan Collins and Rep. Chellie Pingree worked on behalf of Portland to get the less restrictive map. And the question that remains is if — or when — a storm like the so-called perfect storm that clobbered the southern Maine coast in 1991 hits Portland and causes extensive property damage, will FEMA officials be saying, “We told you so.”

In 1993, the Mississippi and Missouri rivers flooded, causing $15 billion in property damage, one of the worst in U.S. history. News reports of the time revealed that federal money had rebuilt, after earlier flooding, streets and buildings that were below the river levels even at nonflood stage. And they were rebuilt again.

Of course, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is the most dramatic example of why FEMA exists, and why its sometimes unpopular decisions must stay in place.

Federal agencies like FEMA should provide avenues for cities to make the case for reconsidering rulings. Sometimes, those rulings are based on faulty or out-of-date information, or a misunderstanding of local conditions. Sometimes, there are ways to mitigate threats that cities can undertake if it is important enough to avoid a hard and fast rule.

But flood regulations are typically based on data over a 100-year period. What the next 100 years hold for weather conditions is a guess, at best. FEMA’s calculations should be considered seriously, or taxpayers could be picking up a colossal tab when the next big flood hits.

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