New federal flood maps could raise waves along coast

Posted April 07, 2012, at 12:29 p.m.

ROCKLAND, Maine — The federal government has begun a study to update the maps that will project what sections of the midcoast are at risk of flooding, an action that could have a significant effect on development.

Officials familiar with the study say it is almost certain that more land will be added to the coastal flood zones, with the only question being how much.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is working on updating flood hazard maps for the coast from Kittery to Belfast. The work began along Cumberland and York counties in 2009. The new maps are expected to be done and used in 2014.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will hold two meetings on Thursday, April 12, in Rockland to help develop flood hazard maps for Knox County communities.

Some of the maps have not been updated since the 1970s, while others have been revised as recently as the 1990s, according to Joseph Young, who is the mapping coordinator for the floodplain management program with the Maine State Planning Office.

Young said while placement in a flood hazard zone can sometimes prevent development, more often than not construction will have to meet regulations to minimize damage in the event of coastal flooding.

Camden Code Enforcement Officer Stephen Wilson said the expected changes will have a significant effect on coastal properties in Camden. He said he expects more land to be included in flood zones than when the last map was developed for the town in 1988.

Rockland Code Enforcement Officer John Root said more properties may also be included in Rockland’s new flood plain map.

Communities must participate in the flood hazard development program in order for property owners to be able to purchase insurance through the national flood insurance program. And flood insurance is required if a person has a mortgage on their properties in a flood zone.

Property owners can build in flood hazard zones if the first floor is at least one foot above the base flood level, but the building needs to be on posts or have blow-out panels installed, which allow high-velocity ocean waters to pass through. For existing structures, they must meet the new standards if they make additions equal to more than half the market value of the building.

Young said he is almost certain the base flood level along the coast will increase, which means more land will be in flood hazard zones. He said the increase is due to a number of factors, including higher sea levels and new models that take into account higher wave action than previously factored.

Rob Gerber, an engineering consultant with Ransom Consulting Engineers and Consultants of Portland, has been hired as a consultant by Rockland, Camden and Isle au Haut in Knox County and other communities in southern Maine such as Portland.

He noted that when FEMA unveiled its preliminary new flood plains maps for Portland, nearly all of densely populated Commercial Street was included in it. Gerber and city officials eventually were able to get the proposed new maps amended to reduce the number of properties added by offering models he developed that showed less of an increase.

Gerber said preliminary studies done by a company working with FEMA has concluded that the surge height in Rockland, Portland and Bar Harbor is one foot higher than when the maps were last done. He said this in addition to an expected one-foot increase in the base flood level.

FEMA is not revising the maps in Hancock and Washington County because of lack of money, he said.

Gerber said it is also expected that the cost of flood insurance will increase sharply when the new flood maps are finalized. He said, for example, a property where the insurance is now $600 could cost $4,000. The federal government guarantees the private insurers who offer flood insurance and the higher premiums are to reduce the government’s costs.

Since 1978, there have been 4,436 losses reported through the National Flood Insurance Program in Maine with payments totaling nearly $40.8 million, according to Young.

The FEMA risk mapping, assessment and planning discovery meetings are scheduled for 2-4 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. April 12, in the commissioners room at the Knox County Courthouse.

The risk mapping program helps communities identify, assess and awareness of flood risk. According to a FEMA letter to communities, FEMA’s map program provides accurate and easy-to-use information to enhance local mitigation plans, improve community outreach and increase local awareness to flood hazards.

The meetings are the beginning of the process to update flood plain maps.

Root said it was almost assured that the flood elevation will increase. The base flood level has previously been determined, in part, by the average wave height but that it is being changed to the top 2 percent of wave heights.

Root said the hiring of Gerber is a good investment. Gerber is being paid about $200 per year by Rockland.

“He will be our eyes and ears,” Root said, as FEMA develops new flood maps.

Gerber is also available to perform additional work, if necessary, such as analyzing the new maps that FEMA develops and even conducting an independent model to come up with proposed new maps. The cost to review the maps would be $1,500-$2,000, Root said, while coming up with independent modeling would be about $15,000-$20,000.

“FEMA respects his methodology,” Root said.

Wilson said he has not notified property owners along the waterfront because it is so early in the process. He said the April 12 meetings will allow municipal officials to better understand the process.

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