Are you in the flood zone? How about now? It is changing

Sussex County gets a look at proposed flood maps

Date Published: 
December 6, 2013

When people buy a home near the beach, they don’t always think about the potential for flooding until the water starts rising. But flood insurance costs might be about to bite some area property owners.

Coastal Point • Laura Walter: Winnie and Bob Oggenfuss find the current flood zone of their Long Neck-area home on a map with assistance from Steve Hickman of Sussex County Planning & Zoning (on right). Coastal Point • Laura Walter: Winnie and Bob Oggenfuss find the current flood zone of their Long Neck-area home on a map with assistance from Steve Hickman of Sussex County Planning & Zoning (on right). For the first time since 2005, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is tweaking the Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRM) for the Mid-Atlantic, so some Sussex Countians may see a change in their property’s designation. Hundreds of residents attended an interactive open house Dec. 2 in Georgetown to see the proposed maps and ask questions.

“There’s tremendous investment in the coastal area — not just privately. Roads, bridges, sewer — we all have something invested in this,” said Chip Guy, Sussex County communications director. “We have to make sure everyone is aware of the risk and what they can do to mitigate. It’s not a question of ‘if,’ but ‘when and how bad.’”

Overall, Sussex County is not significantly affected by the new flood maps. Approximately 30,000 properties are still in the flood zone, said Guy.

FEMA has tweaked the maps with better data and methodology, and some properties will enter the floodplain, while others leave it. But for people inside the floodplain, it is a big deal.

People attending Monday’s meeting had many concerns, from one woman who had a $9,000 insurance premium increase this month to Route 24 residents with a .75-acre parcel that is now in three different flood zones. Even real estate agents wanted updates. For instance, a Bethany-area property is now 1 foot lower to the flood zone, but an Ocean View lot was removed from the floodplain completely.

People in the flood zone are already seeing rate increases, however, because of the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012. Most people in the flood zone have long been required to pay for extra coverage, but the federal government also subsidizes the National Flood Insurance Program. But insurance claims have risen and Congress has eliminated financial assistance, so the NFIP needs to raise rates to remain solvent.

“We’ve learned enough in the past several storms that we need to change how we look at risk … We’re $25 billion in debt” for many reasons, not just recent hurricane relief, said Dave Bollinger, FEMA mitigation outreach coordinator.

FEMA has also designated a Limit of Moderate Wave Action, just to inform people farther inland of 1.5-foot wave risk and encourage communities to be proactive.

More than 20 percent of flood claims occur outside the flood zone, so anyone is susceptible to water damage — something officials are keen to emphasize to the public.

“These aren’t maps that say what happened in the past,” said Bollinger. “We’re insuring for total loss, and that’s the bet we’re making with you.”

Slaughter Beach residents Charles Berliner and Kathryn Dahl were surprised that their oceanfront patio and a sliver of their cottage will be in a more severe floodplain.

“It’s devalued the house,” said Dahl of the double insurance whammy of the higher rates they already pay, plus the floodplain changes.

Property owners can argue against the changes in the flood map. They can appeal to FEMA, or have a survey the land done to prove their point.

FEMA also provides Hazard Mitigation Grants to the Delaware Emergency Management Agency (DEMA), which could help people lift their house, move their house, or have FEMA acquire it.

“You need to be above base flood elevation,” Bollinger said. “It could be as simple as putting a house on stilts, as long as flood waters don’t reach. The higher you go, the less vulnerable you are.”

But some property owners would rather argue the case than take potentially expensive steps to prevent possible problems in the future.

“We’re going make some noise,” Dahl said.

The maps are still subject to the public review process, with 90 days for appeal. After the Final Letter of Determination is issued, six months will pass before the maps and rates become effective.

As the local governing authority, Sussex County will adopt the finalized maps in the summer or early fall of 2014, said Guy. Then, the County will change zoning requirements as needed.

Maps are online at maps.riskmap3.com, where people can enter an address and view specific details. Additional facts are available at www.r3coastal.com or www.msc.fema.gov or by calling 1-877-FEMA-MAP.

People are encouraged to speak with their flood insurance providers for more detailed information on their specific properties.