No public official has suggested that Brown County opt out of the National Flood Insurance Program, but the consequences of such a move have been underscored this spring by severe flooding in the Midwest.
Over the weekend, flood waters reached record levels in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, Iowa, and at least three deaths in that state have been attributed to the flooding and storms that caused it. Elsewhere in the Midwest, hundreds of members of the Illinois National Guard headed to communities along the swollen Mississippi River on Sunday for sandbagging duty while emergency management officials eyed rain-swollen rivers across the state.
In Brown County, parched residents are praying for rain — although not in such deadly quantities — while governmental officials discuss with a FEMA contractor what the proper flood plain level should be as a benchmark for flood insurance need. But going without it?
“That’s not been mentioned by anyone,” Dennis Spinks, general manager of the Brown County Water Improvement District No. 1, said when asked about the prospects of leaving the insurance program if a flood plain level cannot be agreed upon. “But these discussions have made us take a hard look at what the flood plain should be.”
The plight of Lake Delton, Wis., residents and landowners came to the attention of some Texas residents after flood water breached a dam and destroyed luxury homes and other property downstream last week. None of it was insured because the community had previously opted out of the national flood insurance program that 90 percent of Wisconsin’s flood-prone communities have joined, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported.
The Village of Lake Delton had begun the paperwork two weeks ago to rejoin the flood insurance program in which it had participated since 1975. But a dispute with FEMA’s flood plain elevation maps in 2001 prompted local leaders to withdraw. Because of that decision, lake area residents there were unable to obtain flood insurance for the homes they’ve built in the past few years, even though some had tried.
A Journal Sentinel story by Erin Richards last Wednesday reported that one home valued at more than $1 million was lost, and two others valued at or near $1 million suffered substantial damage because of flooding related to the severe storms. Two other homes owned by a corporation also disappeared, and total losses for the five homes were estimated at $2.3 million.
One owner was quoted as saying village officials “pretty much assured us” that nothing would happen because of the lake’s dam, and that his insurance agent told him he wouldn’t need flood protection as long as he built above the flood plain. In the 80-year history of the man-made lake, flooding had never been as high as it was last week.
According to FEMA’s 2001 maps, the area where the homes were built would have been included in the flood plain. An engineer for the village was quoted as saying the community didn’t enroll with the program because the FEMA maps had “gross inaccuracies” when it came to designating the flood plain level. The village commissioned its own study in 2002 and submitted those findings for review.
The situation was unresolved until last year, the newspaper reported, when FEMA announced it would create new flood maps based on more accurate digital data from aerial photos and contour lines. FEMA and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources had recently agreed to map Lake Delton digitally as long as the village joined the insurance program.
Television station WISC reported that the damaged homes would have been fully insured if the owners had been able to obtain the coverage.
Spinks agreed that the situation in Wisconsin differs from that in Brown County, because the major lake development here is upstream from the dam. The property affected in Wisconsin was downstream of the dam.
Brownwood sits downstream from the lake, but major development is 10 miles or so away. Nevertheless, a higher flood plain around the lake probably would have an effect on the level set for the city.
The engineering firm of Halff and Associates has a contract with FEMA to review existing data as a way to establish an updated flood plain elevation for Brown County and Brownwood. The existing level around Lake Brownwood is 1,435 feet above sea level, exactly 10 feet above the lake’s spillway level. That’s the level to which the water district has an easement to store flood water. Since the lake was built around 1930, water has never risen higher than approximately 1,432.
Halff has found two studies, from 1979 and 1992, that have led the engineer to suggest that a flood plain of 1,441 may be appropriate, but local officials say those studies were not performed for the purpose of establishing a flood plain. They’ve also expressed concerns that an elevation higher than necessary could be a deterrent to development of prime real estate and add to the costs of construction.
“We need to have a good flood plain elevation, and it may not be 1,435,” Spinks said. “But we definitely think there’s a more reasonable level that is viable. The 1,441 number just seems too high.”
One way local officials could develop solid data in the flood plain process is to commission a digital mapping study with the purpose of establishing a sound flood plain level.
Spinks added that the water district board is also considering actions it might take to mitigate possible floods, which may go as far as adding flood gates to better manage high waters on either side of the dam. The original Lake Brownwood dam included such gates, but they failed and were later sealed. Those gates could have been a factor in setting the 1,435 easement level. Flood waters are now handled with the spillway.
After serious flooding in north-central Texas in the late 1970s, the water district raised the dam’s height 20 feet, from 1,450 to 1,470 feet above sea level, and boosted its thickness. “That widened and strengthened the dam,” Spinks said.
Brown County, City of Brownwood and the water district officials have said they are planning to meet with FEMA officials to discuss their concerns about the process of setting a flood plain elevation.