(The Daily Advertiser) – Bill Clinton was president, the first flip phone went on sale, the Dallas Cowboys won the Super Bowl, Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart” won an Academy Award and Atlanta hosted the summer Olympics.
It was 1996, and it was the last time Lafayette’s federal flood insurance maps were updated.
Flood insurance maps are used by mortgage and insurance companies to determine if property is in a flood zone requiring the homeowner to purchase flood insurance.
Most of the homes that flooded during the mid-August deluge weren’t in the 100-year flood zone and weren’t insured for floods. Now homeowners are left asking why they weren’t advised their homes were at risk.
“It gives people a false sense of security,” said Pamela Gonzalez-Granger, a civil engineer from Youngsville whose home flooded.
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Stafford and Patricia Barnett’s Del Mar Estates home in unincorporated Lafayette Parish sits more than 20 feet above sea level and two miles from the Vermilion River.
The house, with antique wooden floors, cypress beams and custom cabinets, is in the 500-year flood zone, which means there’s only a 0.2 percent chance it will flood in any given year. Homeowners in the 500-year zone aren’t required by mortgage companies to purchase flood insurance.
Like thousands of other homes in Acadiana and Louisiana, the Barnett house flooded in August — twice — when 20 inches of rain fell across the area in two days
“I opened the front door and water came in — water and mulch and two baby snakes,” Stafford Barnett said, recalling the morning of Aug. 12, the first time the house flooded.
While his 3-year-old daughter sought refuge on the sofa, Patricia Barnett picked up the drapes and other items that could get ruined. Stafford tried to stuff towels under the door, thinking about the financial hit his family was going to suffer weeks after he lost his job.
Then Patricia surprised him.
“She said, ‘It’s a good thing I bought flood insurance,’ which was a shock to me,” Stafford said last week. “I had told her not to.”
That decision, he said, is the difference between bankruptcy and having the $100,000 they’ll need to repair and rebuild.
Eight weeks after water first entered his home, drywall has been hung and paint colors selected, and Stafford offers this advice to every homeowner in South Louisiana: “Buy flood insurance.”
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Gonzalez-Granger, a civil engineer with a private business who also works with the city of Youngsville, describes herself as passionate about drainage and water management.
She knows exactly what thousands of others in Louisiana are going through.
“I have flood insurance and I flooded,” she said Wednesday.
Her house is in a 500-year flood zone, so she’s not required by her mortgage company to buy flood insurance. She does anyway, and thinks everybody else in South Louisiana should, too.
“It doesn’t take a 100-year event to be a problem,” Gonzalez-Granger said. “It doesn’t matter what you call it — climate change, global warming — we have new trends in weather. We can’t keep saying these are anomalies.”
At least 80 percent of the losses in Louisiana from the August floods occurred to properties that were not insured, said Jeff Waters, manager of model product management at RMS, a risk modeling firm that’s analyzing the Louisiana flood. Maybe, he said, people don’t feel like they’re at risk if their property is outside the 100-year flood zone.
Waters said homeowners and business owners need to be proactive in learning about their risk. Talk to local experts, understand that there are no guarantees your property won’t flood, and consider action to lessen your risk, he said, including the purchase of flood insurance.
“Don’t necessarily use the past to project the future flood risk because with the changing climate we’re seeing things like sea level rise and increased precipitation events,” he said.
Larry Broussard, public works city engineer for design and development with Lafayette Consolidated Government, said FEMA is in the process of updating the flood insurance maps for Lafayette Parish. LCG already is using the new maps when planning new developments, he said.
The process of updating the maps takes so long in part because of public hearings and appeals, and because city-parish engineers initially disagreed with some FEMA findings.
FEMA updates flood maps periodically, but there’s no set schedule. The federal agency, around 2006 or 2007, began transferring maps to digital format, Broussard said. FEMA wasn’t going to update Lafayette’s maps as part of that process, even though the parish had experienced a lot of development. LCG got the agency to allow for an update, partnering with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other municipalities to conduct $1.4 million worth of studies to produce much more accurate information, he said.
When FEMA returned the proposed updated maps in 2011, local experts found the federal engineers didn’t take into account unique local oddities, such as the Vermilion River sometimes flowing north.
Eventually, Broussard said, changes were agreed upon, obligating LCG at that point to manage development decisions in the flood plain based on the updated information. LCG is waiting on FEMA to send a letter of final determination, after which local governments have six months to adopt the new maps. At that point, FEMA will require insurance companies and mortgage companies to use the updated maps, he said.
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Even when the maps are updated, some experts say homeowners shouldn’t necessarily rely on them. They should just buy flood insurance.
Broussard said there won’t be major changes to flood zones with the new maps. A few properties that were on the fringes of flood zones on the 1996 maps will find themselves in the flood zones.
“My take as an engineer: They were always in the flood plain,” he said. “Technically, nobody showed that to them. Unfortunately, a storm like this showed them where those flood plains are. Now they can be advised of the situation and protect themselves.”,
Most of the homes that flooded in August wouldn’t have been in flood zones if the new flood insurance maps had been in place anyway, Broussard said.
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Those new flood maps will actually be one parishwide map because “water doesn’t stop at city boundaries,” according to Shona Gibson, a FEMA civil engineer. In the future, when a mapping update is undertaken, FEMA will consider the entire watershed. Lafayette’s update started before that policy, she said
Acadiana’s parish leaders, led by St. Martin Parish President Guy Cormier, met in September to discuss creating a regional drainage authority to consider drainage and flooding regionally since water doesn’t stop flowing at parish or city lines.
Tighter restrictions may be coming on the federal level. President Barack Obama in January 2015 signed an executive order on flood plain management, the first since former President Jimmy Carter. Carter’s order set requirements to meet minimal standards of the National Flood Insurance Program, said Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of Floodplain Managers.
Under Carter’s order, if the federal government funds a building, it has to be elevated to the 100-year flood elevation, he said.
A lot has been learned since the 1970s, Berginnis said, like “the 100-year flood elevation is inadequate. If we really want true resiliency for buildings, we have to build for 500-year floods.”
Obama’s executive order, he said, added three choices to building in flood plains. One of them, which FEMA is pursuing, is that any project they fund must be built 2 feet above the 100-year flood elevation or 3 feet above the 100-year flood elevation for critical properties such as hospitals.
Those rules, if finalized by FEMA, might also apply to individual properties such as homes participating in the hazard mitigation program, Berginnis said.
The comment period on the proposed rules ends Oct. 21. Find more information at fema.gov/federal-flood-risk-management-standard-ffrms
“We think this is the absolute right way to go,” said Berginnis, who heads the national nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing flood losses and protecting flood plains. Every community in the country should manage their flood plain to those standards, he said.
How many in Acadiana have flood insurance?
- Acadia 3,053
- Evangeline 542
- Iberia 4,854
- Lafayette 15,210
- * Broussard 301
- * Carencro 337
- * Duson 69
- * Lafayette (city) 5,804
- * Lafayette Parish unincorporated 7,480
- * Scott 872
- * Youngsville 347
- St. Landry 2,277
- St. Martin 2,473
- Vermilion 5,655
National Flood Insurance Program claims filed in Louisiana for the August floods: 29,171
How many Acadiana households have filed with FEMA?
- Acadia: 3,566
- Evangeline: 1,208
- Iberia: 3,670
- Jefferson Davis: 1,205
- Lafayette: 9,156
- St. Landry: 3,555
- St. Martin: 2,585
- Vermilion: 3,549
FEMA numbers as of Sept. 21.