FEMA Map Would Place El Paso Neighborhoods in Flood Zone

February 20, 2007

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is preparing a new map of El Paso designating much of the city as a flood plain, a spokeswoman said, which would push thousands of homeowners with mortgages into buying flood insurance.

Officials with the city and the International Boundary and Water Commission say the levee system protecting the city from the Rio Grande has been compromised by neglect and a buildup up silt in the river channel.

Spokeswoman Sally Webb said FEMA will soon release a revised flood plain map of El Paso and Dona Ana counties that “basically removes the levees from the flood maps.”

“They can’t be shown as providing protection from a 100-year flood if they can’t do it,” she said. “Part of this is to make residents aware of their potential risk.”

The preliminary map will be open to public review and comment before it’s finalized, which could take up to a year.

The IBWC, which oversees water issues on the U.S.-Mexico border, stopped regularly dredging of the river in 1994.

FEMA certification requires the levee to stand at least two feet above the estimated 100-year flood mark, officials said. Parts of the levee don’t reach that minimum while other areas lack any levee protection.

IBWC Commissioner Carlos Marin said it would cost $250 million to dredge the river and build up the levees. That’s not feasible, he said, but the commission should be able bolster the levees within six to nine months to bring them within FEMA compliance for about $500,000.

U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes of El Paso said in a statement that he has tried to make FEMA aware of the commission’s planned maintenance work.

“I made sure that the agencies started communicating so the maps will reflect the protection El Paso families receive from IBWC’s work on the levees,” Reyes said. “We can’t have El Paso families subject to an unnecessary flood insurance burden.”

Alan Shubert, El Paso’s development services director, said dredging silt from the Rio Grande would be more productive than building up the levees. Silt contributed to the flooding that hit parts of city during heavy rains in August, he said.

“It doesn’t help us if they don’t pull the dirt out of the river,” he said.

Webb said homeowners should consider buying flood insurance before the flood map is finalized, because the lower rates would be grandfathered in if the property is later designated flood-prone.

Tim Collins, of the Hub International Southwest insurance agency, said the cost of flood insurance – up to $300 a year outside the flood plain – can more than triple when FEMA maps the house in a flood zone.

“There’s going to be a lot of unhappy people in El Paso when they find out they need flood insurance when they never did before,” Collins said.

Information from: El Paso Times, www.elpasotimes.com.

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