New FEMA map adds numerous properties to the flood zone

Source: New Bern Sun Journal, by Bill Hand
Date: January 26, 2020

The floodplains, they are a-changing.

Both Onslow and Craven counties are seeing changes in FEMA floodplain maps that will take effect by June 19. The maps define storm surge and other flooding possibilities in the area. Among other counties affected are Dare, Hyde, Beaufort, Pamlico and Pitt counties, all set to go into effect in June.

The maps use updated hydraulic analysis and models to determine the chance of flooding of different areas during serious storms. On the maps, North Carolina is divided into regions designated as AE, VE, X and Shaded X: if you fall into either of the first two categories, your home or business is in an area with a high likelihood of flooding; if you fall in X or shaded X you are either out of the floodplain, or in a plain that has a much lower chance of flooding in any given storm.

And, in a nutshell, if you live in an AE or VE area and have a mortgage on your home, you’re probably going to be required to buy flood insurance. It also means that you’ll have to jump some possibly expensive hoops if you want to build or do any significant additions.

There are terms to learn as we continue in this article: Base Flood Elevation (BFE) for example. To understand the maps, you have to understand that this is what they determine. BFE is the expected elevation above sea level at which a particular property can expect to flood. In most of Craven County, for instance, that level is considered 11 feet. So, if you live on a property that is 6 feet above sea level, then you’re going to want to find a way to raise your structure so that the floor and any mechanics attached to it (say, duct work and sewer pipes) is 5 feet higher if you want to avoid falling into that expected flood elevation range.

BFE is not actually uniform across the entire map: some areas, such as narrow rivers, are likely to have higher flooding than others. Angie Manning, Onslow County Land Use Administrator said that many areas in the Onslow maps aren’t so much whether you’re suddenly in a flood zone; rather it is the amount of BFE. “There are some places that may stay in a flood zone, but go from 7 to 11 feet,” she said.

Then there’s all those mysterious letters: AE, VE, X and Shaded X – the latter sounding more like something you’d find slinking about in a comic book rather than anything as droll as a FEMA map.

•AE: These properties have, annually, a 1 percent chance of flooding. Most hurricanes won’t result in this happening, but one with a lot of rain, or that approaches in just the right direction and under the right circumstances – like 2018′s Florence – are going to turn your first floor into a wading pool – or worse.

•VE: This is AE on testosterone. Think of as standing for Velocity, Manning said. Everything that applies to AE applies here as well. But it also means the area is prone to heavier wave action and, probably, higher BFE elevations. The added force of waves was illustrated in 2018 with Florence when rising waters tore whole porches from houses and burst open doors despite their being deadbolted along Broad Street in New Bern.

• X: According to FEMA models, buildings here are in little danger of flooding: 0.2 percent per year.

• Shaded X: Your buildings and property are reasonably safe – Shaded X is kind of a gray area between AE and X.

In the last two cases, no flood insurance is required.

In the past the maps were broken up into “100-year storm” and “500-year storm” areas, but FEMA has changed the term because, according to Manning, the term is misleading. “People think it happened in 2018, so it’ll be another hundred years (before a similar storm strikes again),” she said. “But it could happen again next year.”

You might feel like you’ve gotten a raw deal if you are suddenly in an AE or VE zone but, according to Craven County Planning Planner II Jason Frederick, it’s good news, in a way. “I think with the flood maps, what you have is new and better data that comes out.” FEMA “tries to fine tune the flood boundaries, if you will.” He said that FEMA conducted 600 synthetic storms to determine how storms would affect different areas.

He noted that Hurricane Florence had nothing to do with the how the maps were made – in fact, the maps have been in existence for a couple of years. However, he said, Florence reflected the accuracy of the new maps. “If you were to overlay Florence with the new flood maps, it would be very accurate,” he said. “Raleigh is to be commended.”

Those in the AE and VE areas could face more problems than just having to build new first floors at higher elevations or adding insurance: Onslow County Commissioner Jack Bright said the changes “really devastates these property owners… It causes people to have their houses and heat pumps raised,” he added, to match FEMA floodplain guidelines. If new structures are built, they will have to be raised – or the owners may not be able to build at all.

Bright pointed out that many areas that are newly labeled as floodplain are waterfront. “Because it’s a floodplain property, it becomes less valuable and the city loses a lot of tax base,” he said.

Bright said that, in some cases, FEMA refuses to allow homeowners to rebuild in some flood zone areas. “There are properties from Florence where FEMA has bought the properties through the county, then condemned the property as far as the building, and stated the property can never be built on again,” he said. Some residents in Swansboro, he added, were forced to relocate.

One realtor, Steve Tyson of New Bern, however, said he has not seen a major change in real estate prices. “It’s going to impact real estate, but it’s not going to be the end of the world,” he said. “If people like the neighborhood and the house is priced well, they’ll buy it.

“I have sold houses in both Fairfield and River Bend that flooded and sold them after they were fixed up,” he added. They sold at approximately the same value that they were before. I thought it would have a big effect, but it wasn’t so much.”

Tyson’s biggest concern is for the people who will be required to purchase flood insurance, but cannot afford it.

Flood insurance can be costly. But even so, county planners as a rule advise buying it, even if you’re not forced to – and even in you’re in a Shaded X or X area.

The reason? Floods can’t read.

“The maps are just a statistical probability of flooding,” Randy Mundt of the N.C. Floodplain Mapping Program stated in an article recently written by Michelle Wagner for the Carolina Public Press. “Mother Nature does not read our flood map, and we know that… when we have more rain than what we’re predicting, you’re going to see flooding outside of where we map.”

“A flood’s never going to follow the map,” Frederick said. “It’s going to do what a flood’s going to naturally do. Water’s always going to run down hill.”

“What people sometimes don’t know is, even if your home is not in that (flood) zone, you can still get insurance. And the state is pushing for people to get flood insurance.”

Shawn Black, who owns Black’s Insurance in New Bern, said there are differing flood insurance policies, with some naturally more expensive than others, depending on the condition and value of the home, where it is located, and how it meets local codes. An option for flood insurance in X and Shaded X areas is preferred flood insurance, which costs around $500 annually, though the price rises over the years.

Most flood insurance, she said, covers up to $250,000 on a house and $100,000 on its contents.

As to the map changes, “People tend to think the sky is falling, and we want them to talk to us and research it, not freak out,” she said. Black noted that anyone worried or interested in insuring their property should attend a public meeting scheduled by the Neuse River Region Area Realtors (NRRAR) at the Carolina Colours pavilion, New Bern, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on April 7. A representative of the North Carolina State Hazard Mitigation office will give an overview of rules and options.

Frederick said that the new map has made significant changes in much – but not all – of Craven County. No houses were added to or removed from the flood plain in Cove City, Dover or Vanceboro. In unincorporated areas of the county, more properties were removed (438) than added (331): a net difference of 107.

Other areas found more properties being added, however:

• River Bend, 61 were added and none removed.

• Trent Woods, 73 were added and 29 removed.

• Havelock, 13 were added and four removed.

• Bridgeton, 53 were added and none removed.

The biggest change is to New Bern were 1,082 buildings were added and only one removed.

The best way to find out your status, Frederick said, is to access the maps online.

A good source for this is https://fris.nc.gov/firs. “It’s fairly user friendly,” Frederick said. Click the map of North Carolina and enter your full address in the upper left corner. Shaded yellow areas are Shaded X; AE is shaded blue; VE is shaded green. On the right side of the window will be a button titled “Effective.” That is the current map. To see how you fare come June, click that button to show “Preliminary.”

The planning office can also be reached at 252-636-2146.