The Massachusetts congressional delegation is asking federal officials to put the brakes on new flood zone maps for the Bay State, arguing that a recent challenge by the town of Rockport has raised questions about the scientific methodology used to redraw the coastal high-hazard zones.
Tens of thousands of property owners across the state could be affected by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s nationwide redrawing of flood maps, many of which haven’t been updated since the 1970s. The changes will force hundreds of property owners along the coast — thousands statewide — to purchase costly federal flood insurance for the first time. Others who have coverage have been hit with whopping increases in premiums that went into effect last year.
In Rockport, officials recently persuaded FEMA officials to modify flood maps for the Sandy Bay and Long Beach areas, arguing successfully that the elevations used to determine which properties were at risk of severe flooding were based on a Pacific Coast wave model that was not appropriate for the East Coast town.
“When we took a look at the proposed maps, we realized that a huge number of our residents would be negatively impacted,” said Erin Battistelli, who chairs the Rockport Board of Selectmen. “We had to respond to protect them.”
The town spent $24,000 on scientific studies to prove that the federal agency’s proposed flood maps were flawed, Battistelli said. While the changes haven’t been finalized, the town is considering appeals for other neighborhoods and has had inquiries from surrounding towns about the successful appeal of the new maps.
Members of the state’s congressional delegation, along with Senators Edward J. Markey and Elizabeth Warren, said Rockport’s challenge sets a precedent for the entire state because the FEMA maps are largely based on the so-called Direct Integration Method used for Pacific Coast communities. They want utilizing the new maps to be postponed until a more thorough review is conducted.
“We need to make sure FEMA’s flood maps are accurate, reliable, and reflect the best available scientific data,” Warren said in a prepared statement.
“Rockport’s successful appeal is further evidence that the new flood maps must be fixed. The government needs to take the time to correct and implement its new maps, so that hard-working families who have played by the rules are not slammed by unaffordable and unexpected rate hikes.”
Under legislation passed by Congress in 2012, FEMA is required to redraw the flood-zone boundaries and phase out decades-old insurance subsidies for owners of homes built in high-risk areas before the original maps were created. The move is aimed at shoring up the National Flood Insurance Program, which is nearly $24 billion in debt.
Since then, the Massachusetts delegation in Washington — including many who voted to approve the law two years ago — has been pushing for changes amid a backlash from coastal communities that believe the FEMA maps are flawed.
“FEMA’s decision to use a model that was untested and inaccurate for the Northeast is yet another example of its preference to do things quickly rather than properly,” said US Representative John Tierney, whose district includes Rockport.
“I hope that FEMA will recognize the unnecessary burden it has placed on so many families and businesses in Massachusetts, and delay implementation of its new flood maps until it can accurately reflect the true flood risk in our communities.”
In response, FEMA officials told lawmakers the federal agency is working with state and local officials to review appeals to new flood zones, called Flood Insurance Rate Maps, or FIRMs, from cities and towns in Essex and Plymouth counties, but stands behind the methodology used in other coastal areas.
“At this time, FEMA has received no additional data from the Commonwealth or its communities that demonstrate that the methodology used to prepare the preliminary FIRMs for the Commonwealth’s coastal communities was completed in error,” Roy Wright, FEMA’s deputy administrator for federal insurance and mitigation, wrote in a response to the state’s congressional delegation.
But the federal agency pointed out that it is willing to accept formal appeals from coastal communities even after the flood zone maps are finalized later this year. “Therefore, a community or other interested stakeholder has the right to submit scientific or technical data to improve flood hazard information,” Wright wrote.
Meanwhile, a bill set for consideration by the US House, which has rare bipartisan support, would suspend the flood zone maps for at least four years while federal officials study the fiscal impact of the new flood insurance rules on low- and middle-income property owners.
Federal officials said the changes are needed to prevent catastrophic losses similar to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which flooded the Eastern Seaboard in 2012. But they also said the map changes have less to do with increased risks than with restoring the flood insurance program to financial solvency.
The flood insurance program collects $3.5 billion in premiums each year, but FEMA estimates an additional $1.5 billion is needed from previously subsidized policyholders to get its fiscal house in order.
FEMA estimates that roughly 1.1 million of its 5.5 million policyholders receive subsidies. Under the new law, 250,000 of them — business owners, those owning second homes, and people whose properties flood frequently — received rate increases that began last year. About 578,000 policyholders in hazardous areas will keep their subsidies until they sell their homes or suffer severe flood losses.
The federal agency has played down the impact of the new maps, saying that only about 20 percent of all flood policyholders would be losing subsidies. Premiums for flood insurance depend on a number of factors — including the amount of coverage needed — but range from a low of $400 a year to more than $8,000 in high-risk zones, according to figures on the federal flood insurance website.
Many homeowners now find themselves in flood zones for the first time, and facing the likelihood of having to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars in premiums for flood insurance if they have a federally insured mortgage.
Others who already buy flood insurance could see rates increase by more than 25 percent if their properties are moved from a moderate-risk zone to a high-risk zone.
Along with coastal homes and businesses and those built near rivers, the new flood maps apply to thousands of properties near lakes and ponds not previously considered at risk.
FEMA officials said they expect to finalize the new flood maps by summer.Christian M. Wade can be reached at cmwade1969@
gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @cmwade1969.