Living High On A Hill: FEMA’s Elevation Problem

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CBS4 Investigates
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MIAMI (CBS4) – The CBS4 I-Team has discovered that thousands of residents are paying for mandatory flood insurance even though they’re living in the highest elevations in South Florida.

CBS4 I-Team investigator Stephen Stock dug through FEMA’s mandatory flood insurance system and found a program underwater.

Retired civil engineer Jack Myers remembers every hurricane that’s ripped through South Florida in the two decades he and his wife Irene have lived in Davie.

“One of these trees believe it or not broke at 90 degrees with (Hurricane) Andrew,” said Myers. “I got it to grow back believe it or not.”

The Myers and their home have weathered South Florida’s worst storms with little to no damage ever since they built back in 1990.

“(Hurricane) Irene (left) 17 inches of rain or something,” said Myers.

Even with all that rain Myers said he has never seen any flooding or major damage to his home in any of those storms.

“I think the water got up into here one time,” said Myers as he pointed to a spot in his yard about eight inches from the edge of a vast drainage retention pond in his planned community.

But ever since the Myers built this little slice of heaven off Pine Island Road in Davie, one thing has really bugged them.

“We’re right in the middle the perfect spot and every time we hear about (living in) a flood zone it’s like ‘How can we be in a flood zone?’” said Myers. “I can’t imagine how the water could ever get to this level.”

Click here to see the Davie Town Flood Map

That’s right.

Even though the Myers live in the highest area of Broward County, they have had to pay for mandatory flood insurance through FEMA’s flood program. And he has the paperwork to prove it.

“It’s not a lot of money but it’s just it always comes due on December the 14th and every year you write a check and you send it in and you say ‘Why do we pay flood insurance here?’” said Myers.

Just up the street, in the same subdivision, Davie’s Forest Ridge, Carmen Saavedra has been asking the same question as Jack Myers.

“We’ve paid flood insurance since day one,” said Saavedra.

She said it works out to be about $600 a year in flood insurance. And, like Myers, Saavedra said it’s mandatory. She doesn’t have a choice.

“It was outrageous when I learned initially that we had to pay flood insurance,” said Saavedra.

Both Saavedra and Myers live here at the foot of the highest natural landmark in all of Broward County, 29 feet high. Only the landfills, the garbage dumps are higher.

And both their property’s elevation maps show the lowest point of their homes, their garages, nearly three feet above the FEMA flood zone shown on the FEMA flood maps which is listed at five feet in one zone, six feet in another one neighborhood over.

Yet each resident we contacted tells the I-Team they have had pay mandatory FEMA flood insurance every year they’ve lived in Forest Ridge single family community subdivision.

“It was crazy,” said Saavedra.

I-Team investigator Stephen Stock asked Saavedra: “And you’re in the highest place in Broward County?”

“The highest place in Broward County. We’re on the ridge,” said Saavedra.

The I-Team examined a half dozen other official surveyor reports which list the lowest elevations of the homes.

And the I-Team discovered that it’s not just Carmen Saavedra living at 3275 Maple Lane whose home survey shows the lowest elevation at 6.98 feet and Jack Myers living at 3140 Peachtree Circle, lowest garage elevation of 7.78′, but also the home of a Carmen’s Saavedra’s next door neighbor on Maple Lane, elevation listed as nearly 2 feet above the flood zone at 6.8′.

And then there is the home on Beechberry Circle which is nearly 3 feet (7.69′) above the five feet listed by FEMA on its official flood zone map.

In fact, as many as 1700 homes in this Forest Ridge Community sitting on both sides of the highest natural peak in Broward County or as many as 3500 people according to the US Census who are mapped into FEMA’s flood zone and thus pay mandatory flood insurance.

“They should be held more accountable as to who is paying what,” said Saavedra. “They (FEMA) should update everything. It’s like it seems like it’s been probably 40 or 50 years since they (FEMA) updated the maps.”

And that appears to be one of the problems.

A CBS4 I-Team investigation examined official FEMA flood maps and discovered the one covering Forest Ridge subdivision has a one hundred year flood level at 5 feet which, as mentioned before, is up to three feet below the elevations of people like Carmen Saavedra and Jack Myers.

And the map is old.

In fact, the most up to date FEMA map doesn’t show any of Forest Ridge subdivision. The subdivision and the roads in it simply aren’t listed because the map is so old.

Because the entire surrounding area is paying for flood insurance so, apparently, does everyone else living in Forest Ridge.

“We have a flood protection system that is simply just not working,” said US Senator Bill Nelson of Florida.

Senator Nelson has been an outspoken critic of FEMA for years.

The senior Senator from Florida says Forest Ridge is just one small example of a FEMA flood program out of control, out of date and often unfair.

“We have to get the maps up to date. And then you have to phase it in over time,” said Senator Nelson.

But Senator Nelson also points out that other residents living in Florida and around the country often don’t pay enough for flood insurance.

That, he said, is why FEMA’s program is now broke. FEMA’s Director, Craig Fugate told Congress in April, 2010, that the agency is $18.7 Billion in debt. “It is unlikely we will ever retire this debt,” Fugate told Congress.

“Right now the Federal Government is basically subsidizing the whole thing,” said Senator Nelson. “That means that every other taxpayer is basically paying for those that are susceptible to a flood. So what you’re got to do is create a fair system where people pay their fair share for the risk that they have.”

Problems with FEMA flood zones affect more than just Broward County.

Tens of thousands of residents around the country have recently found themselves mapped into high risk flood areas without moving, without any change in geography.

As two FEMA Flood maps from Miami-Dade County show, the flood zones can change with little change in geography and from the perspective of some residents with little rhyme or reason.

Click here to see the 2009 FEMA flood map.

Click here to see the same FEMA flood map 15 years earlier from 1994.

Compare the two maps to see how it changes.

Though FEMA officials say some residents were mapped out of a flood zone those same officials admit many other residents now find themselves, for the first time, suddenly mapped into a flood zone.

Without moving or a change in geography these residents now find themselves living in a flood zone with little to no warning having to pay for mandatory flood insurance.

Several FEMA spokespersons wouldn’t talk to us on camera about how they design and lay out their maps and why some people are mapped into a flood zone and some aren’t.

And rather than answer questions about how the FEMA flood program worked, FEMA spokespersons claimed FEMA doesn’t communicate directly with residents such as Jack Myers and Carmen Saavedra, even though both showed us official notices and letters sent to them with on FEMA letterhead.

“There are a variety of factors that will go into what the new map will look like as compared to the old map,” said Broward County Environmental Engineer Leonard Vialpando.

Since FEMA wouldn’t explain the flood system the I-Team went to an expert in South Florida, Leonard Vialpando, an engineer for the Broward County’s Development Environmental Regulation office.

Vialpando clarified one myth that flood insurance is only required of people living along the coast in danger of being flooded by a hurricane’s storm surge. The Broward County engineer explained that FEMA flood designations also consider a home’s location in topography and whether heavy rains from a hurricane or other storm would run down hill, collect and flood a home or property.

“They (FEMA) take the rain generated by (a one hundred year or 1% a year chance) storm and come up with an elevation,” said Vialpando. “And then they compare that number to the existing elevations and every site below that number is in a flood zone. Every site for that zone that is above that number isn’t in a flood zone.”

In other words if a home is located at the bottom of a geographic bowl where heavy rainwater might collect it also would be classified as a flood zone.

But that still doesn’t explain why Forest Ridge homes whose elevations are located on the ridge above any geographic low point and whose surveys show them way above the listed official FEMA flood zone still must pay mandatory insurance.

“They (FEMA) paint an area with broad brush. They (FEMA) don’t have a survey of every single home. They have a general topographic survey of an area. So it’s possible that that general topographic survey misses some high points in the middle,” said Vialpando.

Asked I-Team investigator Stephen Stock, “So there could be people who aren’t really in that one percent (one hundred year) flood zone because it’s painted with such a broad brush?”

“Right,” said Vialpando.

When CBS4’s I-Team asked Senator Nelson the same questions, Florida’s senior Senator vowed to hold FEMA accountable.

“If somebody is being put into a flood zone that’s not a flood zone according to the FEMA maps then they shouldn’t be paying the flood zone insurance rates,” said Nelson. “And if that is a bureaucratic snafu then we’ll just have to straighten it out.”

But so far, Jack Myers, Carmen Saavedra and all the thousands of residents living along the highest ridge in Broward County continue to pay FEMA for flood insurance.

Myers said he’s even contacted FEMA but was told he’d have to hire a private surveyor before he could file an appeal.

In fact, for anyone who questions their home’s status in a FEMA flood zone, there is an appeals process. But, like Jack Myers found out, it involves a resident spending $500 to a thousand dollars or more to hire a private company to conduct a survey then going back to fight FEMA which can still deny the appeal.

Click here to see a copy of the official flyer on the FEMA flood program.

Again, FEMA spokespersons would not answer questions on camera about any of these issues or explain how the process works. But late Friday FEMA did release an official statement regarding its flood program saying, in part “FEMA’s top priority is the safety of the communities we serve. The flood risk of a community is determined by a number of factors, including rainfall, elevation, topography, flood control measures and changes in building or development. We are required to update flood maps by the laws passed by Congress.”

Click here to read the FEMA statement to the I-Team

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