FEMA: Arkansas, Other Delta States Need Time to Review Flood Map

June 24, 2010

After facing strong opposition during a public meeting in Arkansas, a top federal official wants to give cities and towns in the Mississippi Delta more time to review maps that outline where flood insurance would be required.

Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, spoke during a public meeting in West Memphis, Ark., that attracted about 400 people, many of whom said FEMA’s maps – which outline areas where flood insurance would be required or recommended for new construction – would devastate the region’s economy.

The local mayor suggested a 90-day extension on the July deadline for local governments to adopt the maps. Fugate agreed that it was a good idea, but said he wasn’t sure whether he had the authority to approve an extension.

FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said Fugate would “follow through on his offer to give the communities additional time to understand the flood hazards shown on the maps and the impact that these maps will have on the region.”

FEMA officials are “currently working through the details of how to provide that additional time,” Racusen said in a statement.

FEMA told counties and cities in the region that they have until July 6 to adopt the new maps or face a denial of FEMA disaster aid should it be requested. The Mississippi Delta region includes parts of Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana.

West Memphis Mayor Bill Johnson suggested a 90-day extension to give FEMA time to re-evaluate the maps and their impact on the region. The deadline extension also would give local officials more time to find out details of the maps, which many said they had not seen.

U.S. Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., whose district includes much of the Delta area in Arkansas, has recommended that local governments refuse to adopt the new maps. He attended the June 21 meeting and said FEMA obviously wasn’t prepared for the uproar – but would have been had the agency completed required studies.

“They (FEMA) are required to do economic impact studies before they do these, but they chose to waive that in the entire country. They said they consulted the municipalities and they didn’t,” Berry said. “They weren’t ready for what they heard.”

Much of east Arkansas is designated as being susceptible to a huge flood, but that’s based on the unjustified assumption that most levees built to limit flooding in the lower Mississippi River valley would fail, said Rob Rash, engineer for the St. Francis Levee District.

FEMA’s proposed ordinance said flood insurance should be recommended in the area.

“The fact is our levees are solid and haven’t failed us in 83 years,” Rash said, adding that there was no reason for people living in that area to buy flood insurance.

Berry said banks and other lenders see no difference between areas where insurance is recommended versus being required. Lenders aren’t willing to take the risk, he said.

“If it gets ‘recommended’ by FEMA, they will eventually require everybody to have (flood insurance),” Berry said.

That would pull millions of dollars out of the region’s economy’s and send the money to FEMA, which provides the flood insurance, he said.

“We are in the worse economic crisis since the Great Depression and our economy doesn’t need this,” Berry said after the meeting.

Under the new FEMA ordinance, “construction will be nonexistent,” Rush said, noting that developers would be required to build about 15 feet higher than current regulations.

“And it’s not just the Mississippi River Valley, it would go all the way to Little Rock,” he said. Little Rock, on the edge of the Delta, is about 115 miles west of the Mississippi River at West Memphis.

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