Illinois Counties Sue FEMA Over Flood Maps

November 16, 2010

State’s Attorneys of Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties in Illinois and a host of other impacted parties have filed suit in federal court against the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and its director Craig Fugate over new flood maps. The suit aims to invalidate new flood insurance rate maps for the St. Louis region that FEMA is planning to issue in the next year that would declare substantial portions of the American Bottom, a 174 square mile area, as a Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA).

Plaintiff say that area residents and businesses say that new SFHA designatiosn would create mandatory flood insurance requirements, restrict new developments, and harm the region’s ability to attract new jobs and capital investment.

In August 2007 FEMA announced that the levee system in the area no longer provided protection from a 100-year flood, and those levees would effectively be removed from flood insurance maps. The total cost of flood insurance has been estimated at $50 million annually. Also, any new building would need to be raised to a level higher than the projected flood elevation, which might be 15 feet to 20 feet higher than surrounding ground.

“FEMA has a massive deficit in their flood insurance fund, and their decision to de-accredit our levees seems like a hasty and unjustified attempt to extract insurance premiums from our area to help restore the solvency of the fund,” said Alan Dunstan, county board chair of Madison County.

The affected levee systems were designed and built in the 1940’s and 1950’s by the Corps of Engineers, and the Corps has acknowledged that most of the problems alleged by FEMA are a result of a deficiency in the original design. Since the levees were originally constructed, there has never been a structural failure resulting in flooding from the Mississippi River.

Since the announcement of the FEMA decision, county leaders say they have requested data, analysis, and studies from FEMA and from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to determine whether the decision was justified, but have not received information to justify FEMA’s action.

“We are taking this action very reluctantly, but FEMA has left us with little choice but to file this lawsuit to protect the rights of citizens and businesses of the area behind the levees and to protect the economy of the region,” said Mark Kern, county board chair of St. Clair County.

The principal claims of the lawsuit are:

1. FEMA did not produce the information to justify the agency’s decision to de-accredit the area’s levee systems.

2. FEMA denied lawfully submitted appeals of their decision, despite information contained in those appeals demonstrating that the agency used archaic data and faulty analysis.

3. FEMA has acted to de-accredit area levee systems despite thorough annual and periodic inspections by the Corps of Engineers indicating that the levee systems are in acceptable condition and will “perform as expected,” an action that is unprecedented.

4. FEMA did not follow the requirements of the law and their own regulations to consult with local officials about the alleged “studies” that were used to justify their decision, nor did FEMA provide local officials with sufficient notice to prepare and submit information about the condition of the levee system that might have affected the agency’s decision.

Patrick McKeehan, executive director of the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, said his group joined the lawsuit to “protect the livelihood of workers, residents and businesses in our region, along with the long-term economic stability of the communities and institutions within the American Bottom.”

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