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FEMA’s levee standards may impose extra insurance on North Richmond residents

on February 3, 2012

Beverly Scott, who’s lived in North Richmond for three years, likes to take her daughters on walks near the creeks that run through North Richmond. Her family often participates in creek cleanup events. Since her family has lived in the neighborhood, the creeks have run low and there hasn’t been flooding or signs of flooding.

The neighborhood hasn’t flooded since the Army Corps of Engineers erected levees decades ago around the two creeks. But although their record so far is good, the levees now don’t meet Federal Emergency Management Agency standards.

The program is currently on hold, but according to the current standards the disaster agency could “decertify” North Richmond’s levees – essentially removing them from federal maps as if they aren’t there at all. If FEMA decertifies the levees, Scott’s house, every other house on Malcom Drive and Henry Clark Lane, and about 200 hundred other pieces of property in North Richmond, some vacant and some occupied, would be mapped onto a high flood hazard zone. Residents and businesses owners in this zone would be forced to buy special flood insurance.

Scott, like many of those owners, doesn’t have the money for additional insurance, and says she thinks the extra insurance would be unnecessary.

Before people settled in the neighborhood, North Richmond was predominantly a flood plain and mudflats. The area flooded severely in the ‘50s and continued to pour mud over the neighborhood, through the streets and into homes, into the ‘80s.

“Cleaning up mud out of the streets … was a regular occurrence,” said Mitch Avalon, deputy chief engineer of Contra Costa County’s Flood Department, while describing how he spent his first days in the department 33 years ago.

The Army Corp of Engineers erected levees, both earthen and concrete in the ‘80s, which seemed to solve the flooding problem. An earthen levee looks similar to a creek that has been dredged out, with grassy hills on either side, while a concrete levee is more obvious, with concrete walls and floors. Wildcat Creek runs through both kinds of levees, through the middle of North Richmond, just north of the residential portion of the neighborhood.

FEMA started asking counties and cities across the country to assess their levees in 2003, when Congress allocated money to improve flood maps and get them into the digital world, said Eric Simmons, a senior engineer in FEMA’s regional office.

All levees, nationwide, must meet what FEMA calls the 100-year flood system: strong enough to withstand a once-in-a-century flood.

Any levee that doesn’t meet the 100-year flood standard is decertified, and the area surrounding the levee is considered to be in a high-hazard flood zone, regardless of the levee’s record protecting a neighborhood.

“Physically speaking the levee looks the same and provides the same level of service,” Avalon said. “The way that FEMA looks at it, if the levees don’t meet their standards, then the levee isn’t there.”

In a letter written last year to the director of FEMA, 34 members of the House of Representatives and 27 Senators, many from flood-prone areas like Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, and California, urged the agency to reconsider its mapping system. “In cases where FEMA treats a flood control structure as if it has been completely wiped off of the map, we may be unnecessarily devaluing property and hurting the economies of cities, towns, counties and businesses,” the letter said.

Contra Costa County had to scrounge for the money just to evaluate the levees, which cost about $576,000. It will cost millions of dollars to get the levees up to standards — money the county does not have, said Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia.

The problem with the levees is the “free board,” the space between the top of the levee and the top of the water in a worst-case scenario. The calculation relies on three things: vegetation has grown on the bottom of the creeks, slowing the water; over the past few decades, the heavy concrete levees have sunk into the ground a few inches; and a few inches of additional sediment on the bottom of the creek leaves the free board below the FEMA standard of three feet.

But that still leaves a few feet of room for water to rise without putting the neighborhood in danger.

“It’s not like these are designed with the water surface right at the top of the levee,” Avalon said.

While Avalon said there is no real danger of a flood in North Richmond, FEMA representatives disagree. “Levees do reduce the likelihood of flooding, but they never eliminate the chance of flooding,” Simmons said. “This area will flood again, it’s just a matter of time. We like citizens to be aware of their risk.”

Gioia doesn’t want properties placed into a flood zone but more importantly, he said, he wants to keep properties safe from the potential flood. “If something happens like a tree falls into the creek and blocks the flow, because the water level is so high, it has a greater risk of overflowing the levees and affecting the nearby property,” he said.

David L. James, Beverly Scott’s neighbor in North Richmond, said he’s also not convinced that the levees will fail. “Maybe 30 years ago, it might have been a flood area, but now we barely get enough rain to keep the plants growing,” James said.

Scott said she was more concerned about the additional cost of the special flood hazard insurance. “I can’t afford the current insurance,” she said, “let alone any extra insurance.” The amount that the insurance will increase varies from hundreds to thousands of dollars a year, depending on the property.

In part because of concerns like that, there has been a national pushback against the levee standards, particularly in the Midwest. In response, FEMA put its floodplain-mapping program on hold this year, and the agency is in the initial stages of modifying its guidelines.

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