According to Wes Birdwell, the engineer whose company has a FEMA contract to compile flood plain maps for Brown County, there are two ways to be surprised in the flood business.
One is to awaken to water that’s knee-deep in your bedroom.
The other is to get a notice in the mail that your property has been added to the flood plain.
“What we want to do is to take the surprise out of the flood business,” Birdwell told a packed luncheon of Brownwood Area Chamber of Commerce members at the Brownwood Country Club Friday.
Birdwell, water resource planning director for Halff Associates of Austin, has been working with Brown County, Brownwood municipal and Brown County Water Improvement District officials on a flood plain mapping project. It’s part of a nationwide five-year, $1 billion FEMA endeavor.
“People love to live close to the water,” Birdwell said, “sometimes too close. As communities continue to develop, and in Texas we know they will continue to develop, that’s going to happen more often. If a new subdivision gets built near a river or lake, which property gets built on first? That’s not rocket science.”
Birdwell showed a U.S. map indicating that Central Texas, at which Brown County is on the northern edge, historically receives the worst flooding in the nation, matched only by the Appalachian Mountains. He said the combination of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific Ocean is triggered by cold fronts, boosting the threat to this area.
Depending on the hurricane season, Texas, Louisiana and Florida annually are the top three states for flood damages, and lead the way in flood disaster assistance.
“We do not want federal dollars coming back to Texas in this way,” Birdwell said.
Congress authorized the five-year program so FEMA could, in essence, transfer existing flood plain maps that are on paper to standardized computer renditions. In the process, studies are being made to see if the flood plain levels are at levels that are scientifically reasonable.
The food plain levels established by local government are used by the National Flood Insurance Program to determine risk. Without the program, property owners would not be able to obtain flood insurance.
“FEMA doesn’t have money for any new studies,” Birdwell said. “We’re not going to be getting any new studies. We’re using the best available information for the flood insurance rate map.”
He said Brown County has had several floods, and an abundance of information is available.
“Unless it’s been studied, we have no way of knowing what the flood damages are going to be, because we don’t know what elevation the water might get to,” Birdwell said.
The county currently has a flood plain level of 1,435 feet above sea level, which apparently was adopted from the water district’s easement level 10 feet above the Lake Brownwood spillway level. No flood in the history of the reservoir, finished in the early 1930s, has topped that level, but Birdwell said the flood plain probably should be at varying levels at different areas around the lake. But no studies have been specifically conducted to determine what those levels should be.
“We’re not telling people they can’t build there, we’re telling them how to build to prevent damage from floods,” Birdwell said of the flood plain elevation process.
The project in Brown County is about one year into what is expected to be a three-year process, but it could take longer.
“Do we need additional time? Do we need additional studies,” Birdwell said. “We’re working with local officials. As areas grow, it’s best for cities and counties and those in the water business to work together.”
Birdwell said if property owners find out their land has become part of the flood plain, they will have time to acquire flood insurance at lower premiums and then be grandfathered under previous rules and rates. The lower rates can be picked up by subsequent owners.
“You don’t want to put people in the flood plain just because you don’t have good data,” Birdwell said. “But at the same time, you don’t want to have people out of the flood plain who may be subject to flooding.”
Birdwell said the mapping process will propose flood plain levels in the county in about a year, at the earliest, and without other developments that tend to delay the process, levels could be ready for consideration for adoption by local governmental entities in 2010.
“Until then, the flood plain levels you now have will be in effect,” Birdwell said.
And if no applicable scientific data is found that would suggest a change, it’s possible that the levels might not be adjusted at all.