McGrath: FEMA’s bungled maps cost homeowners
By David McGrath firstname.lastname@example.org January 10, 2014 5:56PM
Updated: February 13, 2014 6:34AM
Just to be clear, I am not a member of the Tea Party. While I oppose wasteful government spending, I do not affiliate with an organization that wants to cut food stamps that alleviate child hunger, after it wasted billions of taxpayer dollars by forcing October’s government shutdown.
But when a federal program hurts rather than helps its constituency, I agree that the growth should be surgically removed like a malevolent cancer.
I’m referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Flood Hazard Mapping Program.
Following its disastrous performance in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, FEMA decided to update and digitize its floodplain maps to identify all flood-prone houses before future storms.
It had cost FEMA so many millions of dollars after Katrina’s destruction that FEMA resolved to protect itself by shifting financial responsibility, compelling banks to require mortgage holders to purchase flood insurance.
While its intentions were understandable, implementation by the agency was predictably a mess. By employing old data, old maps and unreliable contractors, FEMA produced new floodplain maps that were inaccurate to the point of being ridiculous.
The end result has been that if you own property near water, as many Midwesterners do (15 percent of Illinois land is flood prone, according to FEMA), be prepared to pay a bundle in what can only be called a “FEMA tax.”
This warning is not based on hearsay but on the experience of myself and my neighbors in northern Wisconsin.
In 2013, I was preparing to sell our cottage on Moose Lake, east of Hayward, with painting, tree trimming and a garage sale, among other things. But when the local bank told me that our 23-year-old lake home was “suddenly” located in a flood zone, according to FEMA’s new maps, the chances for a successful sale seemed doomed.
That’s because a flood-zone designation would scare away potential buyers in that they would have to buy flood insurance, the cost of which has recently skyrocketed because of a federal law that eliminated government subsidies for flood insurance premiums.
So, in addition to the mortgage and annual tax payments a purchaser would assume, he would also have to pay thousands more for flood insurance. Talk about a deal killer!
But my house was not in a floodplain. The Moose Lake area is one of thousands in the country that FEMA mapped incorrectly, according to engineers, surveyors and FEMA itself.
To undo FEMA’s mistake, I spent $800 for a surveyor to prove that my house was well above the high-water mark and to file a Letter of Map Amendment (LOMA) with FEMA to get the correction on record. Only then could I sell my house with a flood-free designation.
My surveyor told me that his company has done more than 400 LOMAs for homes in his area that FEMA placed in a flood zone. And of those 400, all but one confirmed that FEMA was mistaken.
The bankers are aware of the unreliability of FEMA’s mapping. But they earn a commission when their borrowers buy flood insurance, so they err on the side of profit.
Of course, this debacle is not confined to Wisconsin. In 2011, for example, more than 35,000 applications for a LOMA were submitted nationwide, and the majority were approved. That’s $35 million spent to correct FEMA’s flubs. And that accounts for just one of the eight years since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.
And who knows how much money is wasted on unneeded flood insurance by homeowners who, for whatever reason, do not appeal? There’s an entire industry thriving as a result of FEMA’s incompetence.
Are there any benefits to the Flood Hazard Mapping Program? Surveying companies and banks love it for the income it’s generating. And FEMA is outsourcing much of its mapmaking to universities and businesses.
But the average homeowner is paying a lot for absolutely nothing.
Anyone whose home is located on or near a body of water should consult FEMA’s website to learn whether you’re located in a flood zone. If you are, and you plan to sell or refinance in the next couple of years, you should ascertain whether the designation is accurate and file an appeal if it’s not.
David McGrath, a former resident of Evergreen Park and Oak Forest, is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage.