Surveyors Being Blamed for Ike-damaged Homes

By Eric Dexheimer
March 3, 2009
Austin American-Statesman, Austin, TX

It’s not often we get to use the words “investigation” and “Texas Board of Professional Land Surveying” in the same sentence.

At last.

Typically, the state surveying board flies well below the public radar. The vast majority of its enforcement actions involve low-level boundary disputes, about 60 a year.

But late last month the agency recommended an unusually large $6,000 fine for each of two South Texas surveyors accused of violating state rules. The mistakes the surveyors are accused of making, however, will probably end up costing a couple dozen Texas homeowners hundreds of thousands of dollars.

First, the history, courtesy of TBPLS investigator Garey Gilley: Years ago, the Federal Emergency Management Agency let cities and counties choose if they wanted to participate in its flood insurance program. Those that did agreed not to permit any buildings below what came to be known as the base flood level.

Jefferson County decided that the ground floor of structures had to be at least one foot above base flood elevation (also known as the 100-year flood plain). Structures built above that mark were not required to have flood insurance. Local surveyors pinpointed the base flood elevation using 30-year-old federal measurements inscribed on concrete-and-brass monuments erected by the National Geodetic Survey.

In the mid-1980s, FEMA published a new flood insurance rate map, but with different measurements. It recalculated the base flood level based on a new study showing that the Beaumont-area flood plain had actually shifted about three feet since the federal government’s first measurements in the 1950s.

But, Gilley says, local surveyors didn’t know about the new map. They continued to rely on the old NGS elevation numbers. Unfortunately, that meant that people who thought their new homes were being built above flood level were actually building two feet below it.

Gilley says about 20 homes near LaBelle were mis-constructed. “That’s what got the surveyors in trouble,” he says. “They never looked at the new FEMA map.”

The three-foot difference became crystal clear in 2008, when Hurricane Ike hit the Texas coast. Some residents whose homes should have been above the flooding found themselves wading in water instead.

Worse, because of the wrong measurements, they had not bought flood insurance. And now that the homes were in a recognized flood plain, FEMA would not permit them to be rebuilt.

Although two surveyors — Soutex Surveyors Inc., of Port Arthur and Harold F. Locke and Associates, of Port Neches — are the current target of the Board of Professional Land Surveying action (see the agency’s report here) Gilley says other surveyors are being investigated for making the same expensive mistake. The three-foot discrepancy has also spawned a half-dozen lawsuits against Soutex.

According to Gilley, there are many similar areas across Texas, where, unbeknownst to homeowners, new FEMA maps disagree with old federal measurements. “There are absolutely more situations like this,” he says.