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Flood maps missed mark; Pacific homeowners got soaked
Angry Pacific homeowners, facing thousands of dollars in uninsured repairs after the White River flooded their homes this month, are asking why federal floodplain maps put their neighborhood outside the flood zone. Some said they asked about buying flood insurance years ago but were told they didn't need it.
Seattle Times environment reporter
When Chad Weichinger and Sue Estrada bought a house a few hundred yards from the White River in Pacific 10 years ago, they wondered if flood insurance was a good idea.
But an insurance agent told them they didn't need it, Estrada recalled. They weren't in the floodplain.
Two weeks ago, they learned differently.
The White River surged from its banks, filling their South King County neighborhood like a bathtub. Half a foot of water covered their first floor, warping floorboards, soaking insulation and furnace ducts, turning drywall into mush, wrecking appliances and soaking his treasured comic collection.
"Now we're finding out it would have been nice to have some flood insurance," said Weichinger, as he stood in his backyard, covered head to toe in mud from crawling beneath the house to pump out water.
The recent soaking of Pacific, near Highway 167 on the King and Pierce county line, revealed flaws in aging government flood maps that guide where development is allowed, where flooding is expected and who buys flood insurance.
Angry Pacific homeowners, facing thousands of dollars in uninsured repairs, are asking why they weren't warned they really lived in a flood zone. And King County officials are trying to figure out why even new maps still in the works didn't accurately predict where flooding would happen.
The lack of insurance adds to a growing list of problems that have led to suffering and frustration in Pacific.
Poor communication meant the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers kept letting huge amounts of water out of Mud Mountain Dam even as it flooded the town downstream. Dam managers say chronic inaccuracies from a government water gauge near Pacific made it hard for them to know what the river was doing.
Problem with maps
The White River Estates, where Weichinger and Estrada live, shouldn't have flooded earlier this month, according to maps issued by the Federal Emergency Management Administration.
Those maps predict that in a big, rare flood — one that would happen just once every 100 years — roughly half the small 81-house development would get hit. But the amount of water in the river on Jan. 9 was much less than the 100-year flood. It was even less than what FEMA expects every 10 years — a relatively routine occurrence. In other words, nothing unusual should have happened.
The damage, however, was anything but routine.
All of White River Estates, and a string of neighboring houses and businesses, were underwater, according to the city. Water lines reach three feet up backyard fences there. The city says roughly 100 buildings were damaged in all, including nearly every home in the development.
Property damage could total as much as $12 million, according to rough estimates by the city.
Why was the map out of step with reality?
For starters, it hasn't been updated since the 1980s. And it's based on a scientific study of the river done in 1979. A lot can change in that time. Natural erosion digs parts of a river channel deeper, and fills other parts with gravel. The White River is notoriously fast-changing, thanks to all the loose rock eroding off Mount Rainier.
New development upstream can take up space in the floodplain, forcing more water downstream. The roads through the White River Estates, built in 1990, aren't even on the FEMA maps.
Outdated maps are a problem nationwide, one that FEMA has been working to fix in recent years. But maps can take years to update.
In Pacific, FEMA has yet to adopt an updated map. It was going to rely on the 1979 river study for its new map, until King County stepped in and agreed to pay for a new study.
But the recent flood showed even tentative maps based on the new study are flawed. Much of White River Estates is shown outside the 100-year floodplain. Now King County has its contractor trying to account for what really happened in the flood.
"Rivers change, floodplains change," said Jeanne Stypula, a King County engineer overseeing the new mapping effort. "That's sort of the limitations of this kind of work."
New approach urged
To counter those limitations, some are urging a new approach.
Federal law requires that FEMA flood maps represent the current conditions of the river and floodplain when they are drafted.
But, instead of relying on a snapshot that's quickly outdated, there's a push to forecast how rivers will act in the future, as development fills floodplains and climate change alters weather patterns, said Prof. Bob Freitag, a former FEMA official and head of the University of Washington's Institute for Hazards Mitigation Planning and Research.
Those predictions could be reflected on the maps to guide people in deciding where development should occur and who should buy flood insurance.
More frequent big winter floods appear to be in store for Western Washington if climate change, as expected, makes for more winter rain rather than snow, Freitag said.
"Our hydrology is going to be greatly influenced and greatly changed by climate," he said.
Partly because maps are uncertain and rivers unpredictable, Ryan Ike, a FEMA flood official in Washington state, said even people outside a designated floodplain should consider insurance.
"If you're on the edge of that line ... maybe flood insurance is a good idea for you," Ike said.
Lenders require flood insurance for most homeowners inside designated floodplains. People outside floodplains can buy it as well, usually for a few hundred dollars a year. Typical homeowners insurance doesn't cover losses due to flooding.
But like Weichinger, a number of other homeowners in White River Estates said they looked into flood insurance and were told by insurance agents they didn't need it.
Larry Lovin moved to the neighborhood when it was brand new, and he recalls being told they couldn't buy flood insurance.
His home lies just outside the 100-year flood zone, according to the maps. But on a recent day, he was shoveling gooey river mud out of his garage. In the driveway stood a washing machine and a refrigerator, all damaged by the water that covered the floors inside his home.
Without insurance, he has tapped his retirement account to help pay for the repairs.
"We've got enough money; we don't have to wait for the government," he said. "Not that we're not going to be fighting."
Pacific residents could be eligible for federal grants or loans, if a federal disaster is declared. Gov. Chris Gregoire asked President Obama last week to declare a federal disaster.
Meanwhile, four Pacific homeowners are pursuing possible legal claims against the federal government for flood damage. Their attorney, Michael Bond, said he's looking into whether the Army Corps was negligent when it unleashed the water that flooded Pacific.
Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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