Plain Truth About Flood Plains: Everything you need to know about flood insurance
story by Colby Dunn | infographics by George Alread
Dan Vaughn lives on a hill above a pond. He has re-financed his home three times and never knew he lived in a flood zone, as designated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. So he was a little surprised when a letter arrived on his doorstep from his mortgage company, demanding that he purchase flood insurance.
"Initially, we thought 'Ok, well that's not a big deal,'" said Vaughn. "What we found out was that flood insurance, for our house, would cost twice as much as our homeowner's insurance. It would go from $1,000 a year up to $3,000 a year."
When he heard those numbers, Vaughn went into action, trying to find out how his house, which he says is in no danger whatsoever of flooding, could possibly have been listed in a flood zone.
What he found was a FEMA flood insurance rate map (FIRM), which defines the flood zones for the county, restricting where buildings can be erected and often tipping off mortgage companies to who may be in danger of flooding, and therefore in need of flood insurance.
"It's basically a security measure for FEMA," said Danielle Peck, assistant planner for Morgan County. "A lot of times people don't even know they're in a flood plain until they try to re-mortgage."
While alerting people who could be at flood risk may seem like a good idea, Vaughn says that, without an accurate map, it is an exercise in frustration for those who aren't really in danger.
"It's a very inaccurate and not a very useful map," he said. "I spent over $1,000 to hire a surveyor to prove to them [that I'm not in a flood zone]."
For those in a similar situation, the only way out of the flood zone - and the costly insurance - is through a surveyor, according to William Whitley, a 38-year veteran of the surveying trade and owner of Whitley Land Surveying.
"If the mortgage company says you're in the flood zone, your only way out of it is to hire a surveyor to go in and send a elevation certificate to FEMA to be removed out of a flood area, if possible," he said, which is a costly and time-consuming procedure.
The real problem is not the inaccuracy of the map, but its lack of detail. While Morgan County spent a great deal of money - around $200,000 - to create a highly-accurate set of maps and aerial photos that follow two-foot contours, effectively capturing every small change in elevation, FEMA is still working with maps on 20-foot contours.
"And 20 feet is a lot," said Vaughn. "It's almost a two-story house."
"The FEMA line that was put on Morgan County was not done with a lot of detailed information," he said, which means that many people who are nowhere near a true flood zone have still been slapped with the label and its accompanying insurance travails.
"We've done elevation certificates on projects that just don't make any sense at all," Whitley says. "If it [the flood line] touches your property, a mortgage company can require you to have flood insurance. Then it's the burden of the mortgagee to prove that he's out of othe flood zone."
Whitley says this comes as a shock to most of the clients he works with, which is unsurprising, since the FEMA line didn't come into effect in Morgan County until 2002, long after many signed their mortgages.
For some, who are legitimately in danger of flooding, the information is important and useful, and although flood insurance can be costly, it is not nearly as expensive as paying for flood damage out-of-pocket.
However, for many, it seems nonsensical and a waste of money.
"My neighbor, his roof-line is below my foundation and he is not in the flood zone," said Dan Vaughn, who eventually got surveyed and was taken out of the flood zone. "It's going to flood half of Madison out before it ever gets up the hills and gets these houses. To spend the money to have to prove that is just absurd."
Vaughn said that, throughout the process, he questioned why FEMA couldn't use the county's accurate maps.
Chuck Jarrell, director of planning and development for Morgan County, has said that it isn't for lack of trying.
"The unfortunate thing is, talking to someone at FEMA is very difficult." said Jarrell. "We have not heard from them in months, so we're going to go ahead and move forward on our own."
Jarrell said that the county is submitting an application unilaterally this week for their measurements to be used, although FEMA funding for re-drawing the federal maps is unlikely to come through until the 2010-2011 budget year.
For many Morgan County residents, this will mean very little. For those who are not in the flood zone, it is a non-issue. The situation is similar for those who own their homes outright, although Whitley cautions that if they try to sell the property to someone who will be taking a mortgage, sitting in a flood zone can be a big turn-off.
It is not the city, county or even FEMA that require insurance; it is mortgage companies, and federally-backed mortgages from outlets like FannieMae and FreddieMac are legally mandated to require it.
But Whitley says that, despite its mistakes, the map is essentially a good thing.
"People don't realize this, but the county is doing in the best interest of the homeowner," he said, "but I know that sometimes there are injustices."
Jarrell said that new maps could potentially be in place within a few years, but until then, homeowners who get that fateful letter will have to follow Vaughn's example.
"My choice was to pay the surveyor $1,000 and hope that they would release me from the flood zone or pay $2,000 per year for flood insurance, and you'll guess which one I did."
Anyone wishing to view Morgan County flood insurance rate maps can visit the planning and development office in the Morgan County Administration Building or access them online at msc.fema.gov.