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FEMA Maps Central To Buy-Out Denials

More than 100 Vermont families lost their homes in Tropical Storm Irene. At least six had houses that were destroyed by the flood, but were deemed ineligible for a FEMA buy-back program because of where they appear on FEMA's maps.

Property-owner Karin Hardy had completely renovated her 150-year-old house in Jamaica, exposing the original beams, painting historic colors and building a stone bench above the quiet Ball Mountain Brook. But the brook changed on August 28, 2011. River Maps_040113_Nancy Cohen.mp3

At about 9:00 a.m.we started to hear the boulders starting to tumble and the brook was really getting full, recalled Hardy. And it had an energy about it that made me uncomfortable, but I had no idea of what was in store.

Hardy left her house without even packing a bag. After all,the house had stood there for more than a century. She went to a friend's place on higher ground.

By mid-afternoon the town had been transformed.

When we got down to Jamaica the bridge was out, said Hardy. And within a few minutes one of my best friends called me to tell me what had happened. She said, 'Your house is gone.'

The floodwaters had charged downstream, plucking Hardy's house and hurling it against a bridge. Three of her neighbors' houses faced a similar fate.

About five months later the neighbors applied for a federal program that buys flood-damaged property in order to reduce future flood hazards. Hardy was feeling hopeful it would give them the money to start their lives again.

Everybody involved in the process at the time said 'Oh you will be approved first, you are the poster child, this is what the program is for,' recalled Hardy. Because clearly nobody should build here again.

But FEMA determined these properties on Water Street in Jamaica are not eligible for the Hazard Mitigation Program, in part because they're not located inside what's known as a Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA) on National Flood Insurance Rate maps.

Ned Swanberg, Vermont's Flood Hazard Mapping Coordinator,points to an aerial map of Jamaica with an overlay of the 'Hazard Area', marked in red.

So here we can see the red area kind of going through the area around Water Street showing the extent of the Special Flood Hazard Area.

That's where FEMA predicts there's a 1 percent chance every year that a flood of a certain size will occur. The prediction is based, in part, on stream flow, the size of the watershed and the elevation of the landscape. Swanberg said the maps can't predict all floods, or even the largest ones, including Irene.

The misunderstanding is the maps show all the possible risks, which they don't, explained Swanberg.

They show what areas have a 1 percent chance every year of sitting under floodwater for a while, but Swanberg said Vermont has other problems.

In Vermont alot of the damage caused by flooding is not related so much to water sitting around and soaking things, said Swanberg. But it's through the sheer power of moving water changing the location of channels and the effects therefore on roads and culverts, bridges and structures.

Swanberg says, this kind of erosion is not described well on the flood maps. Ray Doherty, from Vermont Emergency Management, agrees.

As it stands now FEMA doesn't recognize that particular hazard as a hazard worth noting on a map, said Doherty. We are trying to get FEMA to revisit that and take into consideration these other types of hazards,other than simply flood inundation.

What's more, the maps, in some cases, are decades old. In the case of Jamaica they're based on data collected in 1980.

Michael Goetz, who manages FEMA's mapping program for New England, confirms the maps haven't been updated for a while.

Right now, we have not made any particular changes in those small, river flood plains in a lot of New England, said Goetz. And that's not only Vermont, but it's throughout New England.

FEMA's mapping budget has been cut by 50 percent and the priority now is to map other areas

Congress recently told us that we need to focus most of our attention on mapping all of the populated coastline in the United States, said Goetz. The priorities have been those watersheds that have a very high flood risk, lots of people, lots of property exposed to the flood hazard and to the coastal areas.

Highly-populated and coastal? Not exactly Vermont.

But back in Jamaica there's some good news. Just recently the state came up with a plan to help buy out the Jamaica properties deemed ineligible by FEMA. Still, even if those property owners get help, the FEMA maps are likely to stay the same.

Nancy Cohen covers southern Vermont's recovery from Tropical Storm Irene. Her work is supported by the VPR Journalism Fund.
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