Vantage Point: The Old Made New (or at least updated)

Before diving in, here is one welcome bit of news that is truly new, announced in a FEMA Bulletin issued March 30, 2020. In more “normal” times (which we hope someday to experience once again), renewal of NFIP flood insurance policies must occur within a 30 day grace period after expiration. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic causing financial struggles for many policy holders, the grace period has been extended to 120 days.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled program.

By now, readers already know about the “new” Elevation Certificate out there that burst upon the scene full-grown on a Friday in this February with no advance notice and no grace period to ease into its use. This document included no changes since the form that had expired in November 2018 beyond the date in the upper right corner. But there are other documents that have been re-released with more significant effect and usefulness. While these “guidance” documents do not have the weight of statutes or regulations, they do answer questions about related field and office activities.

The first of these updates is “Guidance for Flood Risk Analysis and Mapping: MT-1 Technical Guidance”, reissued November 2019. MT-1 is the form used for applications for a Letter of Map Amendment (LOMA) or Letter of Map Revision Based on Fill (LOMR-F). Aside from correcting typos (some pretty awful, like the section on “locating” the SFHA formerly reading “loading”), the revised document now offers much fuller explanations of the use of the form and of map change processes. Two new sections address below grade parking (Section 4.12) and “Special Considerations for Physical Changes to Increase the LAG or to Provide Flood Protection” (Section 4.13). This latter topic clarifies that some post-construction modifications to the lowest adjacent grade may violate NFIP regulations or should otherwise be limited to Letter of Map Revision applications on MT-2 forms. See https://www.hsdl.org/?view&did=834240 or https://www.fema.gov/media-library/assets/documents/34953

FEMA’s Technical Bulletins (TBs) represent a significant resource for our reference arsenals. Technical Bulletin 0 (that is a zero, so it precedes TB 1), reissued July 2019, has quintupled in length, and multiplied far more than that in usefulness. TB 0 now really is the “User’s Guide” that its name always said it was, providing information on to how to use the other TBs and how all of them work together to improve floodplain management. Table 2 is a particularly welcome addition, identifying which TBs apply to which sections of NFIP land use regulations in 44 CFR 60.3. This emphasizes how the pieces of the NFIP work together, and that regulations are not separate from the work of surveyors. The index applying to all the TBs and list of external resources are much improved as well.

Technical Bulletin 1, re-issued March 25, 2020, is our go-to manual for understanding flood openings, which are required in residential buildings and optional in non-residential structures. “Wet floodproofing” a structure allows water into and out of a building without human intervention, in an attempt to equalize water pressure on both sides of walls to minimize structural damage from hydrostatic forces causing deformation, implosion, or buoyancy that can send a building floating down the road.

Of particular note is the removal of language that has caused much confusion and argument arising from the 2008 edition of TB 1 relating to measurement of a flood opening, which implied that only the area of a flood opening that was below Base Flood Elevation would meet requirements relating to the minimum of two openings in exterior walls. (The intent was to avoid tall narrow flood openings that would not properly service a structure, although never stating so outright, and was widely misunderstood.) But such a statement is unfounded in any regulation and can present a physical impossibility depending upon building construction. As a result, the area of flood openings being reported on Elevation Certificates was sometimes less than the actual area of openings, causing client confusion and significant adverse effect on insurance premiums and community NFIP compliance.

This statement has been excised from Section 8 regarding “Requirements and Guidance for Installation of Openings”, and a boxed note added to Section 8.3.6 saying: “The NFIP Elevation Certificate requires users to input the number of flood openings within 1.0 foot above the adjacent grade or floor. The certificate does not require users to determine how much of a flood opening is above or below the BFE.” That should settle all questions.

Other expansions of TB 1 include information to help in completing the Elevation Certificate, emphasizing use of the Comments section to describe different field situations, and documenting engineered openings.

As of this writing, three other Technical Bulletins have also been updated. Of note to surveyors are TB 4 (elevators) and TB 5 (“free of obstruction” requirements in zones subject to storm surge). Each has expanded sections explaining what makes a building NFIP-compliant, helping us point clients in the right direction. For other TB updates and links, visit https://www.fema.gov/nfip-technical-bulletins

About the Author

Wendy Lathrop, PS, CFM

Wendy Lathrop is licensed as a Professional Land Surveyor in NJ, PA, DE, and MD, and has been involved since 1974 in surveying projects ranging from construction to boundary to environmental land use disputes. She is a Professional Planner in NJ, and a Certified Floodplain Manager through ASFPM.