In county after county across Minnesota in recent years, experts have been patiently updating decades-old flood maps to see who’s truly at risk when the waters swell.
Oftentimes, said Suzanne Jiwani, floodplain mapping engineer for the state of Minnesota, the result is that more folks come off the high-risk list than tumble onto it. And that’s great news when it comes to insurance and regulatory control.
Scott County? Not so much.
“Scott has some new areas being mapped,” she said, “and they seem to have more people going in than was true in the past. There aren’t always structures there, just land; but still …”
Late this month, experts from federal, state and county levels of government will convene back-to-back meetings to release and discuss a new set of floodplain maps. The first is with local officials, the second with members of the general public.
No one seems to have calculated just how many properties are affected. But there’s a general sense that the number is comparatively modest — more like dozens or scores than hundreds or thousands.
Still, experts agree it’s an important moment, partly because the whole regulatory structure around flood risk is changing — growing chillier for owners of property.
In fact, consultants have warned the city of Jordan, much of whose historic core is flood-prone, that flood risk is a big deal when it comes to upgrading its downtown.
“I don’t know that they have a lot of dramatic flooding,” said Errin Welty, of Vierbicher Associates Inc., a Madison, Wis.-based consulting firm that is working on downtown plans. “But there’s water in basements and an element of risk there that can make banks hesistant to lend.”
Jordan City Administrator Ed Shukle confessed that he’s a bit fuzzy on the whole question of the changing regulatory framework around floods, and experts say that’s pretty common — but something they’d like to address.
The formal release of the new maps is a great moment for both official and public consciousness-raising, said Jason Swenson, of Scott County’s natural resources staff.
A change in thinking
A series of disasters, both natural and financial, have caused a movement away from the notion of “go ahead, build on a floodplain, we’ll all come in and rescue you when the predictable occurs,” experts agree.
One key moment: the Mississippi River flood disaster of 1993, which ushered in a move toward getting folks out of high-risk areas and acknowledging Mother Nature’s power.
The TARP bailouts late last decade had an effect as well, Swenson said.
“The flood insurance regulations got more serious after that. It’s amazing that even after the tightening of ’93, it was still ratcheting up only a couple of years ago. We field a lot of calls about flood insurance from people who say they never had to buy it before but now they do,” he said.
Then along came superstorm Sandy on the East Coast last year, and that helped usher in another rewrite. An online fact sheet from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) explains:
“On July 6, 2012, a law took effect that made significant reforms to the National Flood Insurance Program. Among other things, this law requires FEMA to take immediate steps to eliminate a variety of existing flood insurance subsidies.”
Underlined, and in boldface type, the fact sheet adds:
“Under the new law, flood insurance premium rates on many properties in special flood hazard areas will increase. The new rates will reflect the full flood risk of an insured building and some insurance subsidies and discounts will be phased out and eventually eliminated.”
“There is definitely more of a mood for that,” Jiwani said of a desire to stop placing taxpayers at risk. “But the truth is, people had an incorrect idea of how much [rescuing] had been happening in the past. A lot of what people thought they would get rescued on is a loan, actually — a no-interest loan to stay there,” but not really a total bailout.
In Scott County, Swenson said, existing flood maps date to 1987, “and since then we’ve had a fair amount of development growth” — an epic understatement.
The new maps to be unveiled June 25 in Shakopee will delineate new boundaries.
FEMA experts say the public process involves unveiling of preliminary maps and then a period for appeal. Once the maps are final, all jurisdictions will pass ordinances based on the new maps.
“What’s at stake,” Swenson said, “is that if you live near any water body,” not just the notoriously flood-prone Minnesota River, “you may be required to insure yourself. For some people, this could be a big deal.”