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FEMA to conduct forum to show off new flood maps

The first major flood map update in more than 25 years may impact flood elevation baselines, tossing residents who have never before needed flood insurance into the mandated federal program, although it could also lead to lower insurance rates for some on the Harbor.

The federal agency is conducting a public meeting to go over proposed, new coastal maps from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 6 at the Rotary Log Pavilion in Aberdeen.

The coastal flood maps are being updated for the first time in years and will affect how flood insurance is determined. Congress also passed major reforms in 2012 that will impact flood insurance as well.

Flood plain maps help establish rates for flood insurance by designating areas as moderate-to-low or high risk of flooding. There are also “undetermined-risk areas,” where no analysis has been done but “a flood risk still exists,” the FEMA definitions say.

High-risk properties have “at least a 1 in 4 chance of flooding during a 30-year mortgage,” according to FEMA. Insurance in high-risk areas is required and can be steep.

The meeting will “cover the update of flood mapping and we will be able to show individuals what the flood hazard information is for their property and we will have insurance and floodplain management staff to answer any questions that come up. We do plan on covering Biggert-Waters (the Congressional reform of 2012) with a few slides in the general presentation,” Ted Perkins, FEMA regional engineer said by email.

Officials from Aberdeen, Westport, Ocean Shores, Elma, Montesano, Cosmopolis and Hoquiam will be there, Aberdeen Public Works Director Malcolm Bowie said. State Department of Energy and Department of Natural Resources will also be on hand. The venue holds 150.

A private meeting requested by the Quinault Indian Nation will also be scheduled, Perkins said.

The new flood map effort is two-fold. Maps will be modernized and put in digital format, and they will be updated, FEMA officials said. “We have a (draft) version not in effect yet,” he said. “Congress realized they really needed to update our coastal maps around the country.”

Before, maps were made using extrapolated data from the East and Gulf coasts, which are subject to hurricanes. Here on the West Coast, there are different concerns such as flood events, earthquakes and high tides. The measurements for the Pacific Coast may have been too conservative, Perkins said.

The new maps for the counties will “effectively be (an) overlay area photo (you can) see your house and everything,” said Kelly Stone, FEMA risk analyst.

“The biggest change is we can now use computers to map the coast,” Perkins added. “Back in the day, very simple techniques were used,” he said. Lidar, which uses laser light and is similar to radar, “shoots thousands of points of light” so “really precise topographical information” is gathered.

“Coastally, historically, we didn’t have a lot of specific stuff for the Pacific Northwest,” Perkins said. This time,“top coastal experts on the West Coast” performed work “completely geared toward the West and Northwest,” Perkins said.

As a result, the threshold for flood-level elevation may go down, Perkins said. For example, a flood level threshold of “21 to 22 feet might be more like 15 or 16 feet,” he said. “It’s highly variable” he cautioned. This could mean flood insurance requirements may cost less money for some property owners. How the flood plain may look in 50 years with climate and other possible changes should also be considered, Perkins cautioned.

The maps will also include the local tribal lands which were not involved in earlier efforts, said Stone.

FEMA also considers wind records, the directions the wind comes from, flood and tide records, “all the different combinations you can look at,” said Perkins. Michael J. Riedy, FEMA program specialist, estimates the team studied 150 of the region’s storms, including the historic December 2007 storm.

Coasts here are often rocky as opposed to sandy, so the analysis differs in that way, too. While much of the Harbor may notice improved flood plain characterizations, Westport may have more land rather than less in the higher risk zones because of anti-erosion walls that have caused more sand and silt to develop.

FEMA also partnered with DNR to do risk assessments on all the building information for the coastal counties, a loss estimation program that will include other potential loss, called the “hazus system” Stone said. “Hazus shows losses for earthquakes as well as floods,” she said.

New tsunami model updates have not been included as yet because a tsunami is more of a 500-year event rather than a 100-year event like a flood.

For more about the maps and reforms, go to www.floodsmart.gov.