In Minnesota and across the United States, thousands of property owners will soon be forced to buy flood insurance because new federal flood-risk maps suddenly put them in flood zones.
The revisions have unleashed outcries as some dispute the reality of the new boundaries and the true risk of flood damage. The changes, made by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), can cost a property owner from hundreds to thousands of dollars each year.
"It's a bad thing for the building," said Andrew Gittleman, vice president of Gittleman Management. His firm manages the 53-unit Great Northern Lofts in St. Paul's Lowertown, one of four historic buildings newly included in the map.
"It's like Tuesday you're not in a flood plain, and on Wednesday you are," he said. "There's no way it's in a flood plain."
The new designation means a $10,000 yearly insurance policy, which will be spread across the condo owners, Gittleman said.
Redefining how far floodwaters reach has broad implications for property and business owners, local governments, developers and others. The maps are used to determine insurance rates, who is required to buy insurance, and to guide local governments with flood plain and development policies.
That's why FEMA embarked on a $1 billion effort in 2004 to update old maps using new technology. The maps are being updated county by county across the country.
It's a mixed blessing.
"There's going to be more people finding out they need flood insurance," said Ceil Strauss, flood plain manager for the state Department of Natural Resources. "There's actually quite a few that are finding out they won't need it anymore, or that they're not in the flood plain."
The exact numbers of who's in and who's out in Minnesota communities aren't clear yet because the revisions are in different stages in different counties.
St. Paul, which will be adopting the new FEMA map within a month or so, sent letters to 300 residents and property owners in Lowertown telling them that they could be required to buy flood insurance when the revised map takes effect in June. More than 450 additional properties in Woodbury were recently deemed to be in flood-prone areas. Last year, 3,800 properties in Fargo-Moorhead were due to be incorporated into redrawn maps.
Nationally, the map revisions have been a mixed bag. Some communities have complained about inaccurate maps. Others howled when FEMA said flood-protection systems weren't up to snuff and redrew maps ignoring them, putting thousands of properties in hazard areas that had previously been considered protected. Elsewhere, property owners rejoiced because the revised maps showed their properties weren't at risk and ended the need for insurance.
"A central part of our commitment to protect lives and property is to ensure that people are aware of the natural hazards and risks that exist in their communities," said FEMA spokeswoman Cat Langel. "FEMA works closely with local communities during this collaborative process to ensure that any verifiable data that will strengthen the flood maps is included and incorporated."
The maps, called Flood Insurance Rate Maps, or FIRMS, depict areas at various risks of flooding, with special attention on special hazard areas that would be affected by floods that have a 1 percent chance every year of happening, or 100-year floods.
Costs vary widely
Floods are the most common natural disaster and have caused about $24 billion in damage across the United States over the past decade.
Congress established the National Flood Insurance Program in 1968 as a way to offer protection to property owners in exchange for local governments taking actions to reduce the risks of damage to property. Those actions include limiting development in highly flood-prone areas.
The government backs the insurance program, but people purchase policies from private agents. Standard homeowner insurance policies don't cover flood losses.
Cost of insurance depends mainly on a property's potential for flooding and the amount of coverage. Homeowners who don't live in a flood plain can insure their house ($250,000) and its contents ($100,000) for an annual premium of $388.
For some structures in high-risk areas, the cost can range up to thousands of dollars.
Any property owner living in a community in the program can buy flood insurance, but structures in the 100-year flood plain having federally regulated mortgages -- the vast majority of them -- are required to have it. According to FEMA, structures located in the flood plain have a 26 percent chance of sustaining flood damage during the term of a 30-year mortgage.
After FEMA makes revisions, local governments must adopt them into flood plain-management ordinances if they want to remain in the program. If a community chooses not to participate, then insurance is no longer available.
As of January, there were 10,850 policies in effect in Minnesota, up from 8,900 in 2008.
In more than half a dozen counties in Minnesota -- including Goodhue, Isanti and Washington -- new maps have been drawn and finalized. The process should wrap up this summer in more than a dozen others, including Ramsey and Dakota. Hennepin County is on track to take effect next January.
In the Scott County city of Jordan, officials are waiting to see the new boundaries. They're a hot-button issue, said Mayor Pete Ewals. He gets routine complaints from folks who pay for flood insurance but don't want to.
Hearings will be held
Over the next few weeks, public hearings will be held in St. Paul as the City Council prepares to adopt FEMA's new map. The city's map was last revised in 2003.
Council Member Dave Thune is puzzled about the inclusion of the historic Lowertown buildings. "We have methods in place that have protected that area in the past," he said. "It's overkill."
Gittleman, whose firm manages the Great Northern building, agreed. He said his company will likely pay for a professional survey of the building and appeal to FEMA to take it out of the flood zone.
On Wednesday, there wasn't much worry about flood waters actually reaching the Lowertown buildings.
Musician John Riddle, who recently moved into the Tilsner Artists' Cooperative, was walking his basset hound, Jones. He said flooding never crossed his mind when he decided to move in. "Honestly, the river would have to come up really, really high," he said. "I'm not too concerned."
Neither were George Weed and Dennis Davidson, owners of the Northwest Canoe Co. in the basement of the Northern Warehouse.
Said Weed: "We can float out of here if it really floods."
Chris Havens • 612-673-4148 Jim Anderson • 612-673-7199