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FEMA’s primary role is to protect homeowners from natural disasters and to compensate them following losses associated with these disasters. It is not to create them. By insuring citizens most valued asset, they also protect the public’s interests as property taxes fund many important public needs such as schools, police officers, fire fighters, street repairs, and other much needed public infrastructure, large portions of which are already in a dismal state of disrepair. Given that FEMA is run by Homeland Security, where they reportedly have maps so accurate, they can spot a dime in a gutter, one would think they could do their jobs properly. In reality, FEMA has done more damage to homeowners than most natural disasters. Indeed, they can make a hurricane look attractive.
Like others, I once held FEMA and its maps in high regard but that is no longer the case. Now, like so many others, my dealings with them are nothing short of horrible and my efforts to process LOMRs are a disaster as their "convenient" web site crashes more than Lindsay Lohan. Even within the federal government’s own mapping and surveying agencies, FEMA is viewed as a joke and their maps are looked upon as nothing more than cartoons. Given the large number of documented errors and problems with FEMA’s Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs), the federal government should condemn the entire agency as it does with homes that have been destroyed by floods and fires.
In most cases, progress is a good thing. In FEMA’s case, it is a very, very bad thing; its efforts to update its risk maps, now displayed in metric measurement and depicted on nicely colored, digital orthophotographs, is an unnatural disaster. Now, thanks to Google Earth, anyone can view as many erroneous FIRMs as they want, all in the privacy of their own home. (hazards.fema.gov/femaportal/wps/ portal/NFHLWMSkmzdownload). You don’t need to be a surveyor or an engineer to spot these errors as mountains, modern subdivisions, and busy public streets are not supposed to be underwater.
A recent Today Show on NBC reported that tens of thousands of property owners have been placed into erroneous flood zone maps across the country. In one story, NBC noted that in 2009, FEMA published updated FIRMs for York and Cumberland Counties in Maine. One year later, the government recalled their maps because there had been so many complaints related to a large number of conflicts and errors. In one of the more highly publicized stories, homeowners Mike and Nancy Heath found themselves drowning in a bureaucratic tsunami after they tried to refinance their house and were told they had to purchase flood insurance at a cost of $1,700 a year. According to FEMA, their home, which sat atop a gently rolling hill twenty feet above the closest drainage course, had a creek running through the middle of their living room. Over the life of their 15-year mortgage, the premiums were going to add another $25,500 to the cost of their mortgage. After FEMA and their insurance company proved intractable, they had to hire a land surveyor to prove their home was not in a flood plain, creating another bill while delaying their refinancing efforts.
They were not alone. In 2011, nearly 400 Maine property owners petitioned FEMA to remove their land from flood plain status costing them, on average, $750 for a land surveyor to prepare the necessary paperwork. When pressed to explain why they used outdated maps, FEMA claimed it was putting "more effort" in using modern maps in more populated areas. In Maine, the number of appeals made to FEMA involving outdated maps runs three times the national average and over the last thirty years; there have been more than 3,400 flood plain map appeals in The Pine Tree State costing property owners more than $2.6 million.
On the other side of the country, in San Diego, one of the more populated areas (using FEMA’s vernacular), after revised FIRM’s were issued in May of 2012, similar conflicts arose and after countless homeowners complained about the errors, FEMA eventually acknowledged the problem and then shrugged its massive shoulders and did nothing, in essence, telling homeowners, "Take a number and don’t hold your breath."
The problem ran deeper for when San Diego’s maps were updated, the city’s storm drain engineers were supposed to look at them to make sure they were acceptable. All evidence suggests they were on either an extended coffee break or, they were at lunch. None of it really mattered as they merely rubber stamped the magnificent looking maps, overlooking obvious and glaring mistakes. When confronted with their failure to do their job properly, one that pays well in San Diego, they followed FEMA’s lead and shrugged, insisting that the affected property were responsible for paying to correct the maps, ones that local taxpayers had funded.
In Tierrasanta, an attractive middle class neighborhood in San Diego, residential subdivisions were engineered for homes atop a series of pleasant mesas, far above any flood plains and hundreds of feet above sea level, conditions that are readily evident from maps and pictures and by anyone who looked at FEMA’s newly updated FIRM issued on May 22, 2012. Ironically, the neighborhood’s nickname is The Island in The Hills. As far as the maps go, they might as well have thrown hand grenades into the neighborhood as less than a month later, homeowners began receiving threatening letters from their banks. Homeowners Randy and Laura Clemmons received a letter from Wells Fargo Home Mortgage (the third largest bank in the country with $1.89 trillion in assets), captioned "Flood Insurance Notification. In bold font below, the menacing letter warned, YOU WILL NEED TO TAKE IMMEDIATE ACTION WITHIN THE NEXT 45 DAYS TO PROTECT YOUR HOME. The National Flood Insurance Reform Act of 1994 requires Wells Fargo Home Mortgage and all other mortgage companies that service home loans to inform their customers about their obligation to buy flood insurance. The flood maps published by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) show that your property is within a required flood zone. Therefore, you must have flood insurance that provides replacement coverage to protect your home."
The Clemmonses were stunned. Their home was high and dry and located some forty feet above the nearest drainage course, a deep canyon located more than a hundred feet away and on the other side of a wide paved public street. In an effort to decipher the letter, they began making calls and after countless dead ends and being caught up in a quagmire of automated phone systems and being put on hold (If English, press 1), they were told to contact FEMA. When they did, they got the grand runaround and were aghast when the people they spoke to spit out a lot of mumbo jumbo about FEMA, LOMR, CLOMR, SFHA, and a host of other foreign terms. (Note: FEMA has made available a 78-page, single spaced, double columned listing of all its acronyms at www.fema.gov/pdf/plan/prepare/ faatlist07_09.pdf). All the while they tried to figure out what was going on, the bank kept pressuring them to respond to their letter and with each passing day, the nightmare worsened, as the deadline approached. Exhausted, delirious, and frustrated, they finally contacted one of the country’s best Investigative Reporters, Mike Turko, with San Diego’s KUSI television. Turko took on the case and like the Clemmons family, he too got the same runaround, going back and forth between FEMA, the City of San Diego, and for good measure, the County of San Diego flood plain coordinators, a veritable Bermuda Triangle of finger pointing and disavowment. They all agreed there were problems but
no one was willing to do anything about it. They also agreed, on cue and as if rehearsed, that the homeowners had to correct the errors no matter who prepared the maps and how many tax dollars has been used.
In an effort to assist the homeowners, Turko contacted me and together, we pressed forward. After more television stories along with a pro bono report I prepared, documenting the errors, we persuaded the bank to drop their demands after FEMA acknowledged the problems. Not surprisingly, in spite of extensive media coverage of this story, neither the city nor FEMA has made any effort to correct the maps. Instead, hapless property owners sit like flies stuck in a spider’s web, unaware that they have a problem, one that they will learn about when they try to sell their property or refinance their home; the erroneous maps are out there waiting for another fly to land.
As part of my analysis, I located the city approved grading plan for the underlying tract map, learning that the subdivision had been graded twenty-five years and was designed by one of the finest engineering companies in the state. The old topographic maps showed a canyon where the Clemmonses property was located but it had been filled as prescribed by the grading plan. FEMA, in all its glory, had based its modern, pretty looking, color digital orthophotographic, metric measured maps on what amounted to prehistoric conditions just as they had done in Maine. I was amazed by what they had done and I couldn’t help but think that with the abundance of imagery like Google Earth and other more sophisticated maps available to Homeland Security that whenever you see homes and highways plotted under water that something is wrong. Not so with FEMA and the engineers at the City of San Diego.
On the other side of town, along the water’s edge in La Jolla, one of the country’s more affluent neighborhoods, the May 2012 maps created even more ridiculous problems after an entire flood zone overlay was plotted some 100 feet too far north, creating overlaps and placing an entire neighborhood of bluff top properties under water. At the risk of speculation, it appears as if some GIS "expert" georeferenced the entire subdivision to a fire hydrant or maybe to an old tree or a parked car. Whatever the reason, as with the others, the La Jolla property owners are being forced to purchase flood insurance or, in the alternate, to prove their homes are not sitting on the ocean floor. Like in Maine and elsewhere, the owners have to hire professional land surveyors, at their own expense, to fix things.
According to Todd Rockwell, Senior Land Surveyor with El Cajon based Site Design Associates, and an expert at surveying coastal properties, the high number of mapping errors in La Jolla is problematic. In the neighborhood with the overlaps, property owners are given quotes of $7,000 a year for flood insurance for properties that are high above the water and have never been flooded. "Many of these property owners simply pay their bills as part of the cost of homeownership along the coast," Rockwell said. He wonders how many people just pay the bills without question, as these homeowners are generally affluent and already face large tax bills.
When Rockwell came across the Bird Rock mapping errors, "the blue line of death," as he called it, he began making calls and sending "dozens of emails" to various FEMA officials to alert them to the problem and to seek their assistance in fixing things. He eventually convinced the insurance company and its underwriter that there was a legitimate problem and working with FEMA, they agreed to charge his client an annual "preferred" premium of $450.00 a year (for flood insurance that wasn’t needed) as opposed to the standard $7,000.00 a year. As part of his efforts, he spoke several times with Edward Curtis, FEMA’s Regional Engineer for Imperial, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and San Luis Obispo Counties in California and for Arizona. Curtis eventually agreed it was a serious problem and thus ended the conversation.
"It is so ridiculous," Rockwell lamented. "There is something very wrong here. In situations like this, when it can be proven there is an error, especially one this large, FEMA should correct the problem and reimburse the homeowner instead of prolonging the problems." When asked if it would be difficult to prepare accurate maps, Rockwell stated, "It is what we, as professional land surveyors do and if we don’t do it correctly, we get sued and as professionals, we are always held responsible for our work. Why don’t the same standards apply to FEMA?"
For months Rockwell called or emailed Curtis (1-877-FEMA MAP) every Tuesday as a follow up in the hopes someone would see that the maps were corrected. He eventually gave up when it was obvious no one was going to return his calls or respond to his emails.
Back on the East Coast, the disasters continue. In the year following the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, FEMA had approved aid for more than 66,000 property owners and renters in New York City. At last, it seemed, FEMA was moving forward in the right direction until they suddenly rejected more than half of the applicants who sought aid, while concurrently demanding that many of their earlier recipients return a portion of their distributions, claiming the property owners "took too much." In one instance, FEMA demanded the return of $17,000 of $37,000 the agency had sent a property owner under her flood insurance policy, despite the fact that FEMA had inspected the property before sending her the $37K.
Since then and in a continuing effort to serve the fine citizens of New York, FEMA is now releasing what it calls "preliminary" maps for sections of New Jersey and New York. These new maps are an "interim product" as a prelude to new FIRMs. Hopefully, and unlike the City of San Diego, someone is going to look at them. For those interested, these maps can be viewed at www.region2coastal.com/bestdata. FEMA claims property owners and community officials can look up flood zone and Base Flood Elevation (BFE) information for their property with these online maps. They are also preparing a set of Advisory Base Flood Elevation (ABFE) maps, utilizing some preliminary information. The newer maps are supposed to replace the ABFE maps as they will be based upon a "more refined analysis of shoreline conditions along the impacted coastal area, including the effects of erosion and wave run-up." Preliminary FIRMs for Atlantic, Cumberland, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean, and Salem Counties, New Jersey and New York City are available while preliminary FIRMs for other local communities are being issued on a rolling basis throughout 2014.
As of the writing of this article, all of the San Diego erroneous maps are still on record, uncorrected, and still being relied upon by insurance companies and lending institutions. In La Jolla, many of the wealthier property owners simply make the payments and write them off as the cost of home ownership. As Woody Guthrie once said, "Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.
Michael Pallamary, PS, is the author of several books and numerous articles. He is a frequent lecturer at conferences and seminars and he teaches real property to attorneys and other members of the legal profession. He has been in the surveying profession since 1971.
A 6.920Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE