By Mary Hladky
Four years after the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced it was making the first changes to Palm Beach County flood maps in 30 years, it has released maps that are slated to go into effect on Oct. 5.
Property owners can now see if their flood zone designations have changed. The county has created a searchable application that is accessible on the county’s website at http://maps.co.palm-beach.fl.us/cwgis/?app=floodzones
It shows a property owner’s old flood zone designation and the proposed new designation. All flood zone designations that touch a property are indicated. If owners are in doubt about whether individual properties are in high-risk flood zones, owners in unincorporated areas also can call the county at 561-233-5306, while those in cities and towns can call their local governments.
FEMA provides flood zone information on its Flood Map Service Center at http://msc.fema.gov/portal.
The new maps are important because they show whether property owners must have flood insurance. Homeowners with federally backed mortgages, and some with private lenders, are required to buy flood insurance if they live in high-risk zones that are labeled with letters starting with A or V.
But even if a homeowner has paid off the mortgage, or lives outside the high-risk zones, flood insurance is often advisable because homeowner policies typically do not cover damage caused by flooding. The cost of flood policies varies according to the level of flood risk.
The county’s flood insurance rate maps were last revised in the early 1980s. When FEMA issued new maps in 2013, protest quickly followed.
County and city officials said the maps were based on outdated and faulty information, resulting in possibly tens of thousands of properties erroneously being included in high-risk flood zones.
The problems were greatest in the central and western communities, including Wellington, Royal Palm Beach, Loxahatchee and The Acreage. But most, if not all, cities and towns found errors.
The county and many cities appealed, and FEMA agreed to allow local officials to submit data so corrections could be made.
FEMA returned with revised maps in 2014 that dropped about a third of the parcels that had been added to high-risk flood zones in the 2013 maps. More revisions followed.
Meanwhile, the county and cities joined forces to make the maps more accurate. The county used LiDAR, or light detection and ranging, which uses laser pulses to get accurate ground elevation data, and shared it with the cities. Some cities hired consultants to help them improve the maps.
“Kudos to the county for doing that,” said South Palm Beach Town Manager Bob Vitas. “I was able to rely on that data to amend the maps that were presented to us.”
The latest FEMA maps, issued on April 5, incorporate the data the county and cities have submitted since 2013.
This time around, local officials are generally satisfied with what they see.
“There was a lot of improvement,” said Doug Wise, the county’s floodplain administrator, who concentrated his efforts on the unincorporated areas in the central part of the county. The new maps for the central area are very good, he said.
“The risks are much more accurate,” Wise said. Before the map revisions, “there were thousands of property owners paying for flood insurance when they were at minimal risk of flooding.”
But Wise said the county and cities did not seek flood map changes to save people from paying for flood insurance. The goal, he said, was to accurately reflect risk. He encourages property owners to buy flood insurance even if their properties are removed from a high-risk flood zone, since flooding can occur anywhere for a host of reasons, including unusually heavy rainfall. Those removed from high-risk zones will pay lower rates, he said.
Neither FEMA nor the county has done an analysis to determine how many parcels were added to high-risk flood zones in the new maps and how many were removed, or where those with changed risk status are located.
Some cities, including Boynton Beach and Delray Beach, are crunching the numbers, but did not have data as of late July.
City or town councils must approve the new maps before October, but no obstacles are foreseen.
Towns took closer look
A very general overview of maps of Boca Raton, Delray Beach and Boynton Beach indicates that properties adjacent to the Intracoastal Waterway remain in high-risk flood zones, while many located farther inland have been taken out. But the changes are scattered across the cities.
Boca Raton was among cities that hired a consultant to help it update the maps.
“We believe the new maps to be about 95 percent accurate and FEMA did accept the changes,” Keith Carney, senior zoning officer, said in an email.
The changes were substantial, he said, and would result in a decrease of millions of dollars spent on flood insurance premiums. Yet some properties that weren’t in flood zones before now are.
Boca Raton’s old maps included 5,656 buildings in high-risk flood areas. The 2013 maps that the city challenged increased that to 6,736 buildings. After FEMA accepted the city’s changes, the number was reduced to 3,350 buildings, and that remains substantially unchanged in the latest maps.
In Boynton Beach, many of the properties removed from high-risk flood zones are located inland, and include the large Leisureville community west of Interstate 95 and properties along the east and west sides of I-95, said Shane Kittendorf, the city’s building official and floodplain manager.
Delray Beach Mayor Cary Glickstein said in an email that the city found most of the changes in the 2013 maps to be acceptable. The city did not appeal, but did work with FEMA to make some “minor adjustments” that included removing some properties from high-risk flood zones. Vitas said the FEMA maps included parts of Lantana in South Palm Beach’s boundaries. He and the town engineer made corrections, and FEMA accepted them. Properties on high elevations along the dune that were not included in flood zones in the old maps remain outside flood zones in the new maps.
“The objective was not to tell people you don’t have to buy flood insurance,” he said. “Our job was to make sure … the new maps were accurate.”
For Manalapan, the status quo prevails. The entire town was and remains in a high-risk flood zone.
The new maps “haven’t changed anything,” said Mayor Keith Waters. “We have always been in a floodplain.”
Rates’ rise an issue
The map approval process is taking place as Congress is struggling to meet a Sept. 30 deadline to reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program. Allowing it to lapse could disrupt home sales in flood-prone areas across the country.
Congress wants to overhaul the program, but is divided on how to do so.
Critics contend that the program has the unintended effect of encouraging people to repair or rebuild damaged homes in areas that repeatedly flood, rather than move to higher ground.
A series of storms since Hurricane Katrina in 2005 has left the program $25 billion in debt. Raising rates to reflect a homeowner’s true flood risk would improve the program’s finances, but big premium increases are certain to cause an outcry.
A 2014 law required gradual rate increases as a result of strong pushback against earlier legislation that would have sharply raised rates. This year, premiums nationwide increased by an average of about 6 percent to about $878, according to FEMA, which administers the flood insurance program.
Florida is the nation’s top flood insurance market. Of 5 million policies nationwide, more than 1.7 million are in the Sunshine State. Palm Beach County has about 150,000 policyholders, including nearly 15,000 in Boca Raton, more than 9,000 in Boynton Beach and nearly 8,000 in Delray Beach.
More flooding at sea level
The FEMA maps do not take into account sea level rise, an increasing problem in South Florida. It’s a critical issue in Miami Beach, where the city is spending as much as $500 million on pumps to keep streets dry and on elevating roads.
The problem is far less severe in Palm Beach County so far, but that will change, although not as quickly as in Monroe, Miami-Dade and Broward.
The Union of Concerned Scientists mapped the rate of sea level rise for hundreds of coastal communities in a July report. National Geographic’s website featured the report and an interactive map that allows viewers to get a national or local view of areas prone to flooding, even down to the street level.
The report said that more than 90 coastal communities across the country are battling chronic flooding now, and the number will grow to more than 170 in less than 20 years, and to 670 by the end of the century.
No communities in Palm Beach County are at risk of chronic flooding today, the report said.
But by 2100, flooding will be significant on both sides of the Intracoastal from Boca Raton to Boynton Beach and farther north. Towns on barrier islands, including Ocean Ridge, Manalapan and South Palm Beach, also will bear the brunt.
Cities and towns in south Palm Beach County are beginning to think about how to adapt. For example, the Delray Beach commission in 2014 requested the formation of the Rising Waters Task Force, which issued a report and recommendations in April.
Boca Raton in May adopted a “climate action pledge” and affirmed support of the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact created by Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties in 2010 to address the impact of climate change.
“Now that we are having more and more nuisance flooding and the king tides are getting worse, it will have to be dealt with,” said Nancy Schneider, who chaired the Delray Beach task force and is a senior program officer for the nonprofit Institute for Sustainable Communities.