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Senators seek an end to 'without levee' designations; change would help Metro East

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 4, 2011 - WASHINGTON - When is a levee not considered to be a levee? When flood-plain modelers for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) designate an area as "without levee" to simplify mapping - often because the levee in question needs to be repaired or recertified.

This week, all four U.S. senators from Illinois and Missouri - joined by at least 23 other senators from other states - asked FEMA to stop using that "without levee" designation and acknowledge the existence of the levees in the Metro East area and other levees under repair when mapping flood plains.

The senators contended that the all-or-nothing levee designation puts jobs and economic development at risk in areas such as the Metro East, where three counties (Monroe, Madison and St. Clair) imposed a temporary quarter-cent sales tax and have invested nearly $130 million to strengthen their levees in a project scheduled for completion in three years.

"Just because a levee is under repair or needs to be recertified does not mean that it provides no flood protection at all or that its level of protection cannot be sufficiently modeled," the senators wrote to FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate. "Current FEMA modeling techniques allow us to more precisely reflect the level of flood protection of such structures."

The bipartisan letter to Fugate was organized by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. and Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and signed by other senators who argue that - in cases in which FEMA treats an existing flood-control structure as if it had been wiped off the map - the resulting flood maps may be unnecessarily devaluing property and hurting the economies of cities, towns, counties and businesses.

Also signing the letter were Missouri's senators - Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republican Roy Blunt - who emphasized that the requested change would also shield Missourians who live in high-risk flood zones from sharply increased costs in flood insurance. Another signer, Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., said that "not only can an incorrect analysis harm future use of certain properties, it can make it much more expensive to develop the property."

The current wave of flood-plain mapping resulted from FEMA's decision in 2007 to reclassify most of the nation's flood plains as "high risk" in terms of flood insurance unless the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers certified that the levees would withstand a 100-year flood. The most common FEMA modeling method - known as 'without levee' - assumes that some existing but uncertified levees or flood control structures do not exist for the purposes of modeling. The senators contend that the method lessens the precision of flood maps and eroding public confidence in the mapping process itself.

Under the current rules, property owners must buy National Flood Insurance Program policies if FEMA determines that their area has a 1 percent annual chance of flooding. Communities across the country - including Metro East - have complained that FEMA flood maps have disregarded locally funded flood control projects and repairs that may provide some level of protection.

Last year Durbin had announced that, through his efforts, FEMA delayed the implementation of the new flood maps for the St. Louis region until December 2011. The reason for the delay is to give property owners more time to understand their flood risk and for legislative action to prevent residents and businesses from facing dramatic increases in flood insurance rates.

"The only long-term solution is to bring the levees into a state of good repair so the region is adequately protected," said Durbin. But he said he would work in the meantime with U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, "to ensure that Metro East residents and businesses are not forced to pay unreasonably high insurance premiums that will put job creation and economic development in the region at risk."

In the letter to Fugate, the senators argued that FEMA has the technology to take into account the varying levels of protection afforded by levees under repair. In view of the economic downturn of the past few years, they said, using the simplified flood-mapping model could erode property values and slow the financial recovery.

"We support FEMA's efforts to maximize taxpayer dollars by choosing simpler, more cost-effective modeling techniques when appropriate," the senators wrote. "However, in cases where FEMA treats a flood control structure as if it has been completely wiped off the map, we may be unnecessarily devaluing property and hurting the economies of cities, towns, counties and businesses."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.