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FEMA pulls flood maps, promises to work with coastal communities

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FEMA pulls flood maps, promises to work with coastal communities

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Federal Emergency Management Agency is withdrawing new flood insurance maps proposed for Cumberland and York counties.

Instead, FEMA on Friday said it will undertake a more collaborative approach to redraw the floodplain maps, which could affect waterfront development and force property owners to buy more expensive insurance.

The agency's decision comes after intervention from the state's Congressional delegation and a flood of concern from communities, many of which had hired an independent consultant to contest the proposed maps.

When FEMA released the maps earlier this year, oceanfront properties in many communities, including Portland, South Portland, Falmouth, Harpswell and Cape Elizabeth were included in the floodplain for the first time.

But FEMA announced on Oct. 2 that it was pulling the proposed maps and ending a 90-day appeal period, so the agency can work with stakeholders to draw more accurate maps.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who asked FEMA officials in a Sept. 13 letter revisit the maps for Cumberland and York counties, applauded the agency's decision.

"It is clear that FEMA is listening to the concerns of Maine's communities and residents," Collins said in a press release.

While the new maps may work well for sandy coastlines, Collins, a ranking member of the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee, which oversees FEMA, said Maine's rugged coast with it many inlets, ledges, bays and islands make floodplain mapping more complicated.

"This latest announcement from FEMA means affected coastal communities in Maine will have the time to continue working closely with FEMA to produce accurate flood maps for the region," she said.

Communities hired Robert Gerber of Westbrook-based Sebago Technics to review the maps and to supply more detailed information to the agency.

Gerber said his analysis took into account the effects of islands, ledges and inlets, and also used a lower wind velocity, to recalculate the flood maps.

He said he wasn't sure his findings would affect the proposed maps when he was originally hired by the city of Portland.

But he was wrong.

"It changed the game," Gerber said.

Portland City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said the city spent $10,000 on its independent review, which compelled FEMA to adjust its flood map for the Commercial Street area in Portland, which would have made waterfront development extremely difficult, if not impossible.

South Portland Planning and Development Director Tex Haeuser said the city only paid $5,500 for its review, since it was able to use portions of Portland's study that focused on the Fore River.

About 275 residents from South Portland, Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough attended a Sept. 29 forum about the flood map changes, Haeuser said.

Haeuser said he is pleased FEMA will revise the maps through a more collaborative process, rather than through expensive appeals.

"It would have been unfair to make residents prepare appeals on maps FEMA knows in some cases are inaccurate," he said.

In Cape Elizabeth, Town Manager Michael McGovern said the Town Council has spent $8,000 in unbudgeted funds for the review.

"Bob Gerber's expertise truly made the difference in having FEMA reach the point it did today," McGovern said in an Oct. 1 letter informing the Town Council of FEMA's decision to pull the maps.

"One resident in Cape Elizabeth wrote to me this week indicating their flood insurance would rise from about $1,000 per year to $25,000 per year," McGovern said of the potential impact the proposed maps would have had.

Harpswell Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said Gerber's review cost the town nearly $18,000, but it proved to be a worthwhile investment.

"For the moment, I think there is a good deal of relief from property owners in Harpswell that the map has been pulled," Eiane said.

Gerber said his model produced the greatest disparity in Harpswell, which has about 200 miles of coastline, with small islands and narrow bays.

FEMA said in a press release it is switching to a new program called Risk Mapping, Assessment and Planning, but has not released details. Each community must sign a project charter, which has not yet been drafted, to participate in the review.

"I think it remains to be seen how we move forward in this new approach and what commitment FEMA is looking for from the town," Eiane said.

Although news that FEMA would work closely with communities to draft the new maps was welcome, South Portland City Manager Jim Gailey said changes are still on the horizon for some waterfront properties.

"The process is not dead by any means," he said.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net