As Fairfax updates flood plain map, residents must buy new insurance

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 14, 2010

One day your house is outside a hazardous flood plain -- and the next day it's in, potentially costing you hundreds of dollars a year in higher insurance premiums. Or vice versa. And it's all the doing of the feds and a funky new map.

Fairfax County is updating and digitizing its map showing the boundaries of flood-prone areas, as part of the National Flood Insurance Program run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Landscape changes, new hydrological data and better mapping technology often alter the boundaries of flood-prone areas as marked on paper maps that are sometimes decades out of date.

The effects can be jarring and sometimes costly, forcing some residents, business owners and renters to buy flood insurance. Through FEMA, federally subsidized policies cost an average of $600 a year but can run as much as $1,385. Private insurers can charge more.

"It was a surprise when they told me my house was in it," said Jeff Relyea, 39, a public accountant whose Mantua Drive house backs up on Accotink Creek. Under the previous map, Relyea's house was outside the flood plain; the new map moves the house into it. "When my mortgage company told me it was going to cost $3,000, that was a huge surprise," he said.

Relyea, whose house has never been flooded, challenged the proposed designation, as permitted by FEMA regulations. He hired surveyors, at a cost of $1,500, to help prove that his house is unlikely to flood and to obtain certification to that effect, known as a letter of map amendment, or LOMA.

For Thomas Black, the new map did the opposite. His home now appears to be outside the Special Flood Hazard Area, a switch that could save him money. It did not look that way at first, however. In May, his private lender notified him that because his home was in a flood plain on the previous map, he would be required to buy flood insurance. And the premium came to a whopping $2,244 a year.

"That caused me to say, 'What's going on here?' " said Black, 67, who works for the county in its transportation division and has lived on Mantua Drive near Accotink Creek since 1980. After calling Fairfax County officials, Black learned that the revised map will actually shift his house outside the flood plain, making flood insurance unnecessary.

The nationwide revision of flood plain maps comes as the 42-year-old National Flood Insurance Program is awash in debt, caused largely by a series of devastating tropical storms, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Like a credit card, the program has almost maxed out its congressionally authorized debt limit, leaving officials $2.075 billion left to borrow and hoping for a mild hurricane season.

The flood insurance program was started in 1968, partially because the federal government was trying to reduce its cost of disaster assistance after natural catastrophes. The aim was to offer affordable flood insurance policies to Americans at a time when private insurers were leaving the market and to minimize the risk to communities by adopting regulations to manage development near flood-prone areas.

FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate told Congress in April that the flood insurance program would probably have to seek debt forgiveness of about $18.7 billion, even as some representatives were pushing to expand the program to offer subsidized coverage against wind damage. Fugate told a House panel that such an expansion would be unwise, probably driving private insurers out of the market and incurring more debt to taxpayers.

In the meantime, the agency is working to update its flood plain maps and enroll more residents in the program. Since FEMA began updating its flood insurance rate maps in 2003, the agency has issued revised, preliminary maps for more than 85 percent of the nation's population in about 17,000 communities. About 63 percent of the nation's population has finalized maps in more than 10,500 communities, FEMA spokesman Bradley Carroll said. Locally, the District's flood plain map update is scheduled to be finished next month.

The undertaking in Fairfax, which began two years ago, has created an inundation of another kind, as calls from residents pour in with worried inquiries about whether they will have to buy flood insurance before the new map goes into effect Sept. 17. County officials say the number of callers has averaged about 20 a day.

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