NEWTONIA, Mo. —
Virginia Habecker was puzzled when she started receiving letters last November indicating that her home rests in a 100-year flood plain. As long as anyone can remember, nearby Newtonia Branch has never flooded.
Mayor George Philliber said he also was concerned when the town received a letter from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the spring stating that new flood plain maps had been completed for the community and it was determined that portions of Newtonia lie in the 100-year flood plain of Newtonia Branch. He said about a dozen residents are affected.
Philliber said FEMA didn’t consult with local residents or community leaders before issuing the new flood zone designations.
“The darn thing hasn’t flooded in over 200 years, so how’s it going to flood now?” he asked. “There hasn’t been a flood in the history of Newtonia, so I don’t understand why it’s in the flood plain now.”
Homeowner insurance policies typically don’t cover flood damage, so lenders require additional flood insurance policies. But because Newtonia never joined the National Flood Insurance Program, Habecker and others in the community are not eligible for subsidized flood insurance rates.
The National Flood Insurance Program underwrites the cost of flood insurance for participating communities. In exchange, those communities are required through zoning and other regulations to prohibit flood plain development.
Habecker said the flood insurance policy provided by her lender is costing her $2,850 per year and has pushed her mortgage payments up to nearly $800 per month. Having retired after hip surgery last year, she said the cost of the insurance has her at the edge of foreclosure.
“I’m an old lady. I’m retired and on a fixed income,” she said. “I can’t afford to pay close to $800 a month. Now they’re sending me default letters and all that good stuff. It’s very frustrating.”
“I think it’s unfair,” Philliber said. “All of a sudden, after all of these years of never being in a flood plain, now it’s in a flood plain. They never talked to anybody and found out if it ever flooded. They just flew over and said, ‘There’s a flood plain.’”
The letter that Newtonia received from FEMA detailed the procedure city leaders could take to join the National Flood Insurance Program and noted, “Because your community is not currently participating in the NFIP, your citizens are not able to purchase the federally underwritten flood insurance coverage they need to protect and rebuild their property in the event of a flood disaster.”
Gary Roark, Newton County emergency management director, said FEMA conducted the flood plain survey of Newton County in 2009. He said the agency contracted with AMEC, a private engineering firm whose surveying department is based in Nashville, Tenn., for aerial surveys of the entire state to determine flood plains.
According to FEMA, the new surveys use a technique known as light detection and ranging, or LIDAR, which uses pulses from a laser to measure distance and more. The new method is believed to be more accurate than previous surveys.
Roark said the time for city leaders to challenge the survey’s findings was in 2009.
“They had some public hearings before the maps were finalized, but almost nobody from the public showed up for the hearings,” he said.
Philliber said he doesn’t remember being notified about any hearing. He said Newtonia has no choice but to join the program, but that will take time, and that won’t help Habecker and the other residents now.
“There isn’t anything we can do about it,” Philliber said. “We found out that back in ’09 was when we had a chance to protest it, but they never sent us anything. They said they did, but we never got anything, so the people who have loans on their houses are getting stuck with high-priced flood insurance.”
‘What can they do?’
Habecker has become a sympathetic figure in the community, but she is not the only one upset about the changes.
One of her neighbors is retired mechanic Coy Robertson. He said his mortgage company began charging him $600 per year to provide flood insurance on his home. He’s not sure why his coverage is cheaper than Habecker’s, but he’s equally unhappy about it. He said people who are struggling through a sluggish economy or are living on a fixed income are in no position to buy additional insurance.
“Because we’re not in FEMA’s plan, the mortgage companies can charge us whatever they want to for something that we really don’t need,” he said.
Roark said one of the options for residents is spending money to have the property surveyed and try and prove that it is not in a flood plain. Habecker said she contacted Jerry Wood, a surveyor from Neosho, to prepare an elevation analysis of her property.
While having the property surveyed can be expensive, Roark and Wood said it may be worth it in the long run if it saves a homeowners thousands of dollars annually.
“If your property is declared in a flood zone and you have to prove that it’s not, it can get pretty pricey,” Wood said. “When you have to have a surveyor or engineer come out to do that, it can run anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000.”
Philliber said some Newtonia residents may not be able to pay the money it takes to dispute FEMA’s new flood plain determinations.
“Most people are retired in town,” he said. “They’re on a fixed income, and they can’t afford it. They move into the little towns like this because it’s cheaper living, and they don’t get taxed out of house and home. What can they do? The federal government is just getting too big telling you what you can and can’t do.”
The National Flood Insurance Program was created more than 40 years ago and currently insures 5.6 million homeowners in 21,000 participating communities around the country, according to FEMA.
In 1997, the agency developed a plan to modernize its flood plain maps. The agency estimated that the program would take five years and cost $1 billion. Actual surveying began in 2004. FEMA spokeswoman Barb Sturner said the purpose was to convert two-dimensional paper flood plain maps to a digital format, update existing maps, and create new maps for communities where none previously existed.
In March 2010, a group of 16 U.S. senators — including Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and former Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo. — penned a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA outlining concerns with the new flood plain maps and the impact they were having.
The senators said they were “concerned about the way the (corps) and FEMA have approached the process and the challenges that it has created for affected communities.”
The concerns were listed as: a lack of communication and outreach with local stakeholders; a lack of coordination in answering questions about flood mapping, flood insurance and flood controls; the affordability of flood insurance; and the potential impact new flood plain maps might have on economic development, particularly in small and rural communities.
McCaskill said last week that officials are still working on making some changes.
“We need to dedicate the resources necessary to ensure that rate maps are accurate, so that we’re not forcing families to pay for insurance who don’t really need it,” she said. “We also need to make sure that when Missourians have concerns about proposed changes to the maps, that there is a clear, comprehensive and responsive review process in place.”
Newtonia is not the only Missouri community wrestling with the change.
Sikeston, with a population of about 17,000 in Southeast Missouri, found itself in a similar situation. But unlike Newtonia, the city participates in the National Flood Insurance Program.
Sikeston City Manager Doug Friend said last week that city leaders are either going to have to accept the new maps, fight them or risk being kicked out of the federal program.
“Once you are kicked out of the (program), a chain of events starts,” he said. “Mortgages begin getting called because people can no longer afford the necessary insurance. It kills all development.”
Friend said large portions of his community that have never flooded have been designated as flood zones.
“Sikeston is located on a ridge that runs 50 miles from the northern to the southern end,” he said. “Historically, since the 1800s when we were settled, everything commercial and residential was built on the ridge. It is a large portion of ground that has never flooded, and I can’t imagine how it would ever, even with a catastrophic failure of the levee system to the north of us.”
Friend said he believes the new flood plain maps could be FEMA’s way of bringing thousands of property owners and communities into the National Flood Insurance Program to help bring the program back into the black after financial losses in recent years. According to the office of U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., the program was designed to be self-sustaining but has experienced a $900 million annual budget shortfall since 2005, when hurricanes Katrina and Rita slammed into the Gulf Coast.
“I believe what FEMA has done is to target communities that have a very low probability of producing a claim,” Friend said. “They’ve produced maps that would suggest that there is a flood plain present. Therefore you bring more people into the program that have to pay premiums who, odds are, are never going to have to file a claim for flood insurance. That money can then go to the high-risk areas.”
But Sturner, the FEMA spokeswoman, said that claim is “completely false.”
“This mapping process began in 2004, before Katrina and before the Florida hurricanes,” she said. “That’s why there’s no correlation to it. It may feel that way if you’re living in the Midwest, but one is not dependent on the other. This is a nationwide effort that started before those storms. The map modernization effort was not intended to impact the solvency of the NFIP.”
Joplin, too, has been affected by the new maps; Joplin, like Sikeston, participates in the federal program.
When the high school on Indiana Avenue was built nearly 60 years ago, it was not in a designated flood plain, but recent revisions to flood plain maps changed that. If the school district was to be eligible for millions of dollars in federal funds to help rebuild the school after it was destroyed in the May 2011 tornado, it needed to move the new school to higher ground.
Dan Johnson, an engineer in Joplin’s Public Works Department and the flood plain manager, said updated technology has increased the accuracy of the maps. The work also involved mapping some streams that were previously unmapped, so some people who weren’t designated on the old maps are now in a flood plain.
Johnson said that if a community does not participate in the NFIP, lenders are forced to purchase risk-based insurance, which is more expensive than the federally backed policies.
The threshold for determining who needs insurance and who doesn’t is the 100-year flood plain — areas where there is a 1 percent chance per year that a flood could reach a designated level. But Johnson cautioned that just because a place hasn’t flooded in a century or two doesn’t mean it is not in a flood plain and that flooding could not happen. Although no flood may reach a home for 300 years, three floods theoretically could reach it in the next three years.
“As an engineer, we’re into math and we look at statistics,” he said. “You have to set the bar somewhere, and that 100-year flood is what they’ve picked. It’s pretty conservative, but they’re just trying to be safe about it. I hear that a lot: ‘It’s never happened in my lifetime.’ But that’s not really how statistics work. You can have a 100-year storm two years in a row.”
‘Into the sunset’
Habecker said she recently sent an elevation analysis to FEMA and was told that a response would take 30 to 60 days. Until then, she said, she is receiving regular calls from her mortgage company.
“My bank calls me about once a month,” she said. “I told them they can come take my house, and they said they don’t want it because they couldn’t sell it anyway. It’s so frustrating, and I don’t know where it’s going to end.
“If I lose my house, then fine, I’ll just move. I’ll load my dog and my cats up in my little Saturn and ride off into the sunset.”
The National Flood Insurance Program is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The program underwrites the cost of flood insurance for participating communities. In exchange, those communities are required through zoning and other regulations to prohibit development in a flood plain.