FEMA's new flood maps go too far, some cities say
New federal flood-plain maps to be released in coming months redraw areas across Western Washington most likely to be inundated by a 100-year flood. From Kent to Chehalis to Sultan, officials say a flood-plain designation will come with stringent development rules and will require property owners to purchase flood insurance that could cost thousands of dollars each year.
Times Snohomish County reporter
King County flood-plain maps:
Snohomish County flood-plain maps:
Southcenter Mall apparently will be untouched. But just a half-mile away, Ikea could be underwater.
New federal flood-plain maps to be released in coming months redraw those areas across Western Washington most likely to be inundated by a 100-year flood. The new maps include large swaths of the Green River Valley, home to tens of thousands of people and the state's largest concentration of warehouses and industrial development.
But when officials from some of the communities most vulnerable to flooding use words such as "devastating" and "disaster," they're not talking about torrential stormwaters. They're referring to what they fear could be the effect of the new maps on their economic survival.
From Kent to Chehalis to Sultan, officials say the flood-plain designation will come with stringent development rules and will require property owners to purchase flood insurance that could cost thousands of dollars each year.
"It will impose severe restrictions on new investments in a critical job center in the region," said Ben Wolters, Kent's director of economic and community development. "It's of great concern to us, almost as much as a flood."
Both the federal government and environmental groups say the redrawn flood maps put property owners on notice of threats to life and property. And they say the maps are a key to reversing decades of flood-plain development that has destroyed natural habitat and failed to protect endangered species including chinook salmon.
"Building in flood plains is bad for threatened species, and it's costly to taxpayers who have to pay for repeated flood-loss claims," said Dan Siemann, senior environmental policy specialist for the National Wildlife Federation, which won a 2004 federal court ruling against the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and its administration of the National Flood Insurance Program.
The new maps draw on state-of-the-art science, such as laser imaging, as well as detailed hydrology studies, storm records, construction activity and natural changes in river channels. The data goes to create sophisticated computer models that more accurately predict where floods will occur, said John Engel, in Snohomish County's Surface Water Management Division, which has partnered with FEMA to update that county's maps.
It's all part of a five-year, $1 billion FEMA initiative to modernize and digitize the nation's flood-plain maps. This is the final year of the effort.
"Mapping doesn't cause flooding; it shows where the risks are," Engel said.
Green River Valley
FEMA plans to release preliminary maps for Snohomish County in April and a revised Green River Valley map in May. Both counties will schedule open houses for public review. If the maps are not appealed, they'll take effect early next year, said Mike Howard, spokesman for FEMA Region 10.
City officials in the region are particularly unhappy with FEMA because the agency, in some cases, won't take into account levees and dams that have provided flood protection for decades.
When FEMA first released preliminary maps for the Green River Valley in 2007 — well before the problems with the storm-damaged Howard Hanson Dam were identified — several billion dollars worth of property in Auburn, Kent, Renton and Tukwila were added to the flood plain, in part because there was no evidence that 33 miles of levees met federal standards.
While some levees had been repaired and shored up, others had deteriorated over time and continue to pose a flooding risk, engineers said. The federal government only certified the levee protecting Westfield Southcenter Mall.
The cities and King County appealed those maps, conducting their own analysis. And FEMA did listen. The flood plain being proposed now is less extensive than the 2007 version.
Still, Ikea and other large developments remain in the flood plain, and city leaders say the impact to the West Coast's second-largest warehouse district could be "disastrous."
Wolters, the Kent official, said businesses facing a host of development restrictions and expensive flood-protection measures may not reinvest in the area over the next few decades.
"We're talking about 87,000 jobs that they're putting at risk," he said.
Building restrictions could include limiting new construction and hard surfaces such as parking lots to no more than 10 percent of a property. Property owners also could be required to restore flood-plain habitat if they wanted to expand an existing building, Wolters said.
Wolters also is frustrated that FEMA is still not giving credit to most levees. He said that ignores the millions of dollars that the city, county and federal governments have spent over the past decades to maintain and improve them.
"It's a fallacy that our levees don't exist. In fact, they do," he said.
In Chehalis, where a December 2007 storm system triggered massive flooding, shut down Interstate 5 for four days and caused about $450 million in damage, city leaders echoed concerns that the preliminary FEMA maps greatly expand both the flood plain and floodway, the area where stormwaters are predicted to be most destructive.
Their argument is similar to that of Green River Valley officials. FEMA won't consider levees that protect a growing commercial development near the freeway because they provide protection only from a 50-year flood and not a 100-year flood.
Water has coursed past those levees twice in the past 15 years: They were breached in the 2007 storm, swamping a Walmart and a Home Depot; and they were overtopped in a 1996 flood.
But city officials say those were the only times in 60 years that the levees failed.
"We're going to fight it," said Chehalis City Manager Merlin MacReynold of his city's preliminary flood-plain map. "FEMA has used for its modeling a flood that was a very extreme anomaly. The potential impacts to future development here could be devastating."
Critics say the city contributed to the flooding by allowing development in the flood plain and it has continued to approve new projects, adding to the risk of future flooding.
In Snohomish County, severe flooding in January 2009 caused $15 million in damage, closed a stretch of Highway 9 for several days and prompted evacuation warnings to more than 1,000 residents along the Skykomish, Stillaguamish and Snohomish rivers.
But in Sultan, where floodwaters swirled within a block of City Hall and volunteers stacked sandbags the length of Main Street, city leaders say the revised flood-hazard area will jeopardize development in its historic downtown.
First floors of new businesses would have to be built about 7 feet above Main Street, and residents with mortgages would be required to buy flood insurance, city leaders say. The costs of those measures could drive new businesses to higher ground, away from the city center.
"It's going to suck the lifeblood out of our downtown," said Sultan's Community Development Director Bob Martin.
As in Kent and Chehalis, the flood-plain designation in Sultan is expanding largely because FEMA won't consider Culmback Dam, which sits high on the Sultan River and for 50 years has moderated floods by holding back winter stormwaters, City Manager Deborah Knight said.
"They're not looking at the reality on the ground," she said.
Snohomish residents who have lived with flood-plain restrictions for the past three years say FEMA also may require insurance even on property that's never flooded.
Dave Remlinger, a farmer and businessman with several hundred acres of land in the Snohomish River Valley southwest of Monroe, has paid more than $10,000 over the past three years in flood insurance for property that includes a house more than 30 feet above the 100-year flood elevation. The house never has been touched when surrounding fields flood.
"Usually common sense wins out, but it hasn't won yet," he said.
Environmentalists say FEMA is right to use caution when considering dams and levees because they can fail over time. They note the devastation wreaked on New Orleans in 2005 when levees protecting the city were breached during Hurricane Katrina.
Said National Wildlife Federation's Siemann: "It's a false assumption that by building a levee, you're protected behind it."
Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or email@example.com. Material from Seattle Times archives was included in this report.
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