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I-Team: FEMA Flooding Controversy

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South Florida and FEMA flood zones, some have to pay insurance, some dont (Source: Google Earth)

South Florida and FEMA flood zones, some have to pay insurance, some dont (Source: Google Earth)

CBS4 Investigates
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PINECREST (CBS4) — Later this year, in September, the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA is scheduled to begin revamping its flood maps for residents in Broward County.

The CBS4 I-Team spent four months taking an in-depth look at those maps and the system for determining who pays and who doesn’t.

The I-Team discovered thousands of residents paying for mandatory flood insurance who likely will never need it, while thousands more don’t pay but live in communities that most of us would consider to be high risk flood areas.

And because of that confusion and apparent unfairness, some in Congress, including Florida Senator Bill Nelson, now say the flood program is so broken that it can’t be fixed. And they say FEMA must start over.

A production director at CBS4, Pete McCoy and his family have lived in their home located east of US 1 in South Miami for almost twenty years.

“It’s been great,” said McCoy. “My wife’s family connections with the person who lived here helped us buy this house when it went up for sale.”

McCoy lives so close to Biscayne Bay he keeps his boat in his front yard, the better to get it down the street for the mile and a half trip to the ocean.

“We’re that close,” said McCoy.

And up until about a year and a half ago, Pete McCoy paid mandatory FEMA flood insurance.

“We were going to write the check that day (to FEMA) and we got a letter from them and I opened it up and it said you’re out of the zone,” said McCoy.

But even though Pete McCoy and his neighbors suddenly don’t have to pay flood insurance… around the corner those neighbors still do pay mandatory flood insurance. Those residents are still mapped in a FEMA flood zone.

“I was really surprised when I got pulled out of the zone,” said McCoy.

Even closer to the water, about three-quarters of a mile from Pete McCoy’s house, in the township of Pinecrest on Southeast 115th Street, one homeowner told the I-Team in an e-mail that he isn’t mapped into the flood zone and thus pays no mandatory flood insurance. But the resident, who did not want to be identified, said his neighbors living across the street from him, 80 yards away, are both mapped in the flood zone and still must pay mandatory flood insurance.

Three blocks away, the CBS4 I-Team closely examined FEMA flood maps and discovered the same problem.

One home is mapped out of the flood zone while the neighbors across the street, literally feet away, are mapped into the FEMA flood zone and therefore must pay mandatory flood insurance.

“For me, my wife’s lived here for 50 years,” said Pete McCoy. “I mean her family and it’s never flooded so I’ve always questioned it (being mapped into a FEMA flood zone.) (I’ve always questioned) whether we should actually have to pay. But you know what do I know? I just write the check every time.”

Then, in Broward County, there’s the case of resident Jack Myers.

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

Myers and his home have weathered South Florida’s worst storms over the last 20 years.

“(Hurricane) Irene (left) 17 inches of rain or something,” said Myers. But still Myers said he had no flooding at his home.

In fact, in all the time he’s lived in Broward County, 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 tapping his foot about six inches from a retaining pond and a good 30 feet from the nearest corner of his home.

But ever since Myers built his retirement home with his wife, what they call their little slice of heaven, off Pine Island Road in Davie, one thing has really bugged him.

“We’re right in the middle the perfect spot and every time we hear about flood 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.

That’s right.

Even though he lives in the highest area of Broward County, Jack Myers has had to pay for mandatory flood insurance through FEMA’s flood program every year he’s lived there.

“It’s not a lot of money. But it’s just it (the flood insurance bill) 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, Forest Ridge, Carmen Saavedra has been asking the same question.

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

Saavedra said she pays about $600 a year in mandatory flood insurance.

“It was outrageous!” said Saavedra. “When I learned initially, that we had to pay flood insurance, I couldn’t believe it,” said Saavedra.

Both Saavedra and Myers live at the foot of the highest natural landmark in all of Broward County.

It’s a hill that is officially listed as 29 feet high. Twenty nine feet above sea level. Only the garage dumps are higher.

And both their property’s elevation maps show the lowest point of their homes, their garages, are listed as nearly 3 feet above the official FEMA flood zone, which according to the latest FEMA map, is five feet in their neighborhood.

Yet both Saavedra and Myers have each paid for mandatory flood insurance every year they’ve lived there.

“It was crazy,” said Saavedra.

CBS4 I-Team investigator Stephen Stock asked, “And you’re in the highest place in Broward County?”

“Yep. (We live in) the highest place in Broward County. We’re on the ridge,” said Saavedra.

It’s not just Carmen Saavedra living at 3275 Maple Lane and Jack Myers living at 3140 Peachtree Circle but also the home of a neighbor at 5381 Nob Hill Road with a surveyed elevation nearly two feet above the flood zone.

And a home at 3228 Beechberry Circle which has a survey elevation listed nearly 3 feet (7.69′) above the flood zone.

In fact, the I-Team discovered that as many as 1700 homes in Forest Ridge Community, which is located along both sides of the highest natural peak in Broward County, about 3,500 people according to the US Census Bureau, are all mapped into FEMA’s flood zone and thus pay mandatory flood insurance.

davie town flood map1 I Team:  FEMA Flooding Controversy Town of Davie Flood Map.

The contrast between Forest Ridge in Broward County and the South Miami neighborhood where Pete McCoy lives shows, what critics say is one of the biggest problems with FEMA’s flood insurance program, it’s seemingly random and arbitrary assignment of who pays for flood insurance and who does not.

For example, even though the folks on Pete McCoy’s street don’t pay flood insurance those living in houses just around the corner, literally steps away, do continue to pay for mandatory FEMA flood insurance.

And other residents living in houses located just across Red Road from McCoy, according to FEMA, still live in a flood zone too.

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

A Democrat, Senator Nelson has been an outspoken critic of FEMA for years during both Republican and Democratic administrations.

Senator Nelson said that the problems discovered by the I-Team in Broward County’s Forest Ridge and Miami-Dade County’s South Miami and Pinecrest neighborhoods are just small examples 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 Florida’s senior Senator.

But Senator Nelson also points out that other residents in Florida do not pay enough for flood insurance.

That’s why, Nelson said, FEMA’s program is now broke. Recently FEMA’s director, Craig Fugate, told Congress FEMA’s flood program was $18.7 Billion in debt. In April, 2010, Director Fugate also told Congress “it is unlikely that we will ever retire this debt.”

“Right now the Federal Government is basically subsidizing the whole thing (the flood program),” said Nelson. “That means that every other taxpayer is basically paying for those that are susceptible to a flood.”

“So what you’ve got to do is create a fair system where people pay their fair share for the risk that they have,” said Senator Nelson.

The problems with FEMA flood zones affect more than just Miami-Dade and Broward County residents.

The I-Team learned of tens of thousands of residents around the country who have recently found themselves mapped into high risk flood areas without moving and without any change in geography.

In another example of what critics call the random nature of the flood maps, one Miami-Dade map from 1994 shows that suddenly, hundreds if not thousands of residents suddenly are mapped into flood zones 15 years later in 2009.

Click here to see the Miami-Dade flood map from 1994 & 2009.

Miami-Dade officials say some residents, such as Pete McCoy and his neighbors were mapped out of the flood zones. But those same officials admit that many other residents now inexplicably find themselves, for the first time, suddenly living in a flood zone with little to no warning.

FEMA officials wouldn’t talk to the CBS4 I-Team 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.

So we went to an expert here in South Florida, Leonard Vialpando, an engineer for the Broward County’s Development Environmental Regulation office.

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

“They (FEMA) take the rain generated by that storm and come up with an elevation. And then they compare that number to the existing elevations and every sight below that number is in a flood zone,” said Vialpando.

“Every sight for that zone that is above that number isn’t in a flood zone,” said Vialpando.

But that still doesn’t explain why Forest Ridge, with homes way above that minimum listed on the map as above the FEMA flood zone, still must pay mandatory insurance.

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

I-Team investigator Stephen Stock asked, “So there could be people who aren’t really in that one percent 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.”

Even though FEMA officials contacted Jack Myers to see about fixing his problem, Myers tells the CBS4 I-Team, that so far, FEMA has done nothing to correct his or his neighborhood’s classification as a flood zone.

FEMA would not answer questions on camera about this. But in an e-mail statement a spokeswoman said “The flood risk of a community is determined by a number of factors…”

And… “We are currently updating the flood maps for Broward County…”

Click here to read the official statement from FEMA in full.

Those updated maps were supposed to be completed by 2010. But officials in Broward County tell the CBS4 I-Team it could now be 2012 before the maps are finished, posted, public hearings held and then officially accepted and put into the public record.

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