Flood Zone Change in D.C. Could Be Costly

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 7, 2008

New flood zone maps proposed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency could result in mandatory flood insurance and stricter building codes for a huge swath of downtown Washington, according to a presentation at a planning board meeting last week.

The maps show a proposed flood zone several blocks wide and extending in a broad crescent from the Lincoln Memorial to Fort McNair, in Southwest Washington.

The zone would include Federal Triangle, much of the Mall to the base of Capitol Hill and a large section of Southwest Washington.

The proposed changes were unveiled in the fall but have not been widely publicized, community planner Michelle Desiderio said at a National Capital Planning Commission meeting Thursday.

"The proposed flood plain map modifications . . . may have a potentially adverse impact on federal operations and private businesses within the nation's capital," Marcel C. Acosta, the commission's acting executive director, wrote in a letter to Tim Karikari, a D.C. Department of the Environment official, who is the city's designated contact on the issue.

The changes would dramatically expand what is called the 100-year flood zone, within which flood insurance often is required and more stringent building codes might exist. The flood maps haven't been updated since 1985, officials said, and the hazard zone then was far less extensive.

The proposed changes are the result of a five-year FEMA program to reexamine 90,000 flood hazard maps throughout the country, according to spokesman Butch Kinerney.

During Hurricane Katrina, levees around New Orleans either failed or proved to be inadequate, opening the city to vast destruction.

Kinerney said FEMA is telling city officials that if a community cannot prove that its levees work, a new FEMA map is drawn as if the levees didn't exist, Kinerney said.

That is the case in the District.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently found that a series of levees designed to protect downtown Washington was inadequate, according to Steve Garbarino, the Corps of Engineers' project manager for flood protection in the Washington area.

The chief problem, he said, is with the sandbag barrier periodically erected across 17th Street near the National World War II Memorial in times of high water from the Tidal Basin and Potomac River. He described the temporary barrier as unreliable. "We need to make that permanent," he said Friday. He said the Corps of Engineers wants to install a "post and panel" levee across 17th Street.


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