FEMA and community advocates want Metro East residents to review preliminary flood maps
Some Metro East residents may be mapped into a new flood zone — one that could require homeowners to purchase flood insurance.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency held four open houses in various Metro East communities over the past two weeks to showcase the agency’s preliminary flood-risk maps for the area.
“With this updated information, it will allow the county and individuals to make informed decisions,” said Dan Shulman, who works with FEMA’s Region 5 office based in Chicago.
The maps, which have not been updated since 2003, depict the danger presented to home and property owners in Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties.
While these maps are in their preliminary phase, community organizers and FEMA are asking for residents to educate themselves about the threat of flooding in historically hard hit parts of the Metro East.
“It really varies from property to property what those changes could be,” Shulman said. “It could be significant changes; it could be no change.”
Those organizers and FEMA are also asking for feedback on the maps. The communities most at risk tend to be predominantly ones of color and lower income. If new homes have been zoned into higher-risk areas, the property owners could be required to purchase flood insurance — which can be expensive.
Sharice Yates, an East St. Louis native, got zoned into a higher-risk area by the new map.
“I, thankfully, already have it,” she said of flood insurance.
Yates was one of a handful of community members who stopped by the open house at the Clyde Jordan Center in East St. Louis last week. Her basement flooded last July when heavy rains inundated many homes in the area.
“That was not fun at all,” Yates said.
The rainwater damaged her basement and personal items. Yates’ teenage daughter also had a room below ground and lost a number of items. Within two months, Yates estimates, the renovations wrapped up and she’d replaced much of what she lost.
“I've been with that house all of my life, and I have never known that home ever in my life to ever be flooded,” Yates said.
While Yates won’t have to make any changes, she said she feels for her neighbors on Church Lane in East St. Louis who didn’t have insurance and will now be required to do so. One friend down the street is elderly and on a fixed income. Another is a single parent with two daughters.
“For us residents who are trying to keep everything in order so we can be covered and safe, it’s now beginning to get harder,” Yates said.
Flood insurance in some areas is required by mortgage lenders backed by the federal government. Many others not backed by the government would not lend to a homebuyer without flood insurance in at-risk areas. In St. Clair County, the minimum rate for flood insurance is $1,200 annually.
“It is critically important that the public get engaged with this process to provide feedback to FEMA on any potential errors in the map,” said Olivia Dorothy, restoration director with American Rivers.
A part of what Dorothy’s organization does is advocating for those impacted by environmental changes. Dorothy and American Rivers see this situation as one created by systemic racism.
“A lot of areas that were redlined in the 1920s and 1930s were redlined because they were flood prone, and then communities of color — Black residents, African Americans, immigrants — were all forced to live in these flood-prone areas.”
When floods occurred, that only further degrades the value of those homes and the wealth of those communities, Dorothy said. That’s not something that’s lost on Shulman of FEMA.
“We absolutely share the concern about the impact of flood maps on historically underserved communities,” he said. “Approaching equity is everything in this administration.”
Thanks to new FEMA methodology adopted in 2021, Metro East residents mapped into higher-risk zones have some options to ease the burden, Shulman said.
New residents can receive a 70% discount on an insurance policy the first year. Every year after, the rate would slowly increase to full price. There are also discounts for homes built above ground level or elevated by a crawlspace. Some communities may be enrolled in a program that brings their residents a discount.
President Joe Biden’s administration put forth a series of legislative proposals that would authorize FEMA to study further assistance programs, Shulman said. Congress has not taken action.
There is a possibility to request an amendment to the maps. Those residents would need evidence to prove they’d been improperly zoned — and may need to provide a property deed and official elevation information from a local building or zoning department, among others, according to FEMA.
Shulman said he expects these maps to become final sometime in 2025.
“Flooding happens whether or not we put those maps in place,” he said. “We want to have the most accurate maps that we can so people understand there is risk, so communities can take appropriate action and so the state and federal government can take appropriate mitigating measures.”