Mike Borengasser said floodwaters can always find you.
Borengasser, state climatologist with the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, wasn’t trying to sow fear but, rather, knowledge about what the Federal Emergency Management Agency said is the nation’s most common natural disaster.
Borengasser, the state coordinator for FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program, said Arkansas has had its share of floods, including widespread flooding along the White River in 2011 and in Scott County in 2013. Percentage-wise, Arkansas is among the top five states nationally in land situated in 100-year floodplains, Borengasser said.
“We’re really high, but of course, a lot of that land in eastern Arkansas is sparsely populated,” Borengasser said. “We have had some bad floods – nothing of the scope, of course, of Sandy or Katrina or even up in Iowa a few years ago. The White River in 2011, there were hundreds of homes that were damaged. A lot were vacation homes, hunting camps, but still they suffered damage. From 2008 on we’ve had some pretty significant events.”
When the water rises into homes, some people may assume their homeowners coverage is sufficient, but those insurance policies don’t cover flood damage. The U.S. government tried to address flood damage expenses in 1968 when it created the National Flood Insurance Program, which provided flood insurance for participating communities.
Arkansas Business reports that in Arkansas, 419 cities or counties are members of the NFIP while 92 are not.
Residents of NFIP communities are eligible to buy flood insurance from the federal government at premiums dictated by factors that include what kind of floodplain the structure is located on and how elevated the structure is.
It’s not just for homeowners. Developers of mixed-used buildings or commercial and industrial properties may also qualify. Nonresidential structures can either be elevated above the base flood elevation or be flood-proofed according to FEMA’s guidelines.
FEMA regulations also dictate how utilities and drainage systems for nonresidential buildings or residential subdivisions built on floodplains must be protected.
Cities and counties that participate in the NFIP’s Community Rating System can also get their residents discounted rates on that insurance.
The CRS is not as prevalent in Arkansas; at last count, 14 cities or counties were participating. Members of the NFIP have to adopt and follow FEMA regulations and floodplain mapping.
FEMA said residents in Arkansas’ NFIP communities have purchased 21,345 flood insurance policies for $13.7 million, an average of approximately $642.
Borengasser said a few years ago that an Arkansas town resisted a new floodplain map created by FEMA. The town leadership soon changed its mind after insurance rates ballooned from approximately $600 annually to $500 a month.
“The purpose was to reduce the payout of disaster assistance money by having people buy flood insurance,” Borengasser said. “The idea was for communities to adopt regulations so eventually all new builds would replace old builds and all would be flood resistant. The insurance is more affordable because the risk is not as high.”
Private insurers rarely offer flood insurance, but FEMA uses a consortium of private companies to handle the NFIP applications and claims. Terry Smith, an agent with McNair & Associates in Fayetteville, is a certified NFIP partner – one of four based in Arkansas – and said she gets calls from across the state about flood insurance.
It would be inaccurate to say people can shop for the best rate, because FEMA predetermines the rates based on criteria such as floodplain risk and building elevation. Smith said that as an NFIP partner, she collects information from the potential buyer and then puts it in the “quote-unquote rating program” that spits out the premium amount.
“It’s generally affordable,” Smith said. “Everybody is in a flood zone – it just depends what kind of flood zone. You don’t have to be by a river to be in a flood zone.”
Flood insurance premiums can be adjusted by a building elevation over the flood level. Bentonville requires a 3-foot clearance, while Little Rock requires 1 foot over.
For each foot above, Borengasser said, premiums go down – but, of course, for developers the cost goes up for each foot of elevation.
FEMA recently awarded the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission $573,804 through its Cooperating Technical Partners program to generate and maintain floodplain maps.
Borengasser said that’s a good thing because, while many floodplain maps don’t change dramatically from year to year, some Arkansas communities are still working off of the original floodplain maps created when the NFIP was formed.
“Some of the maps are 40 years old,” Borengasser said. “We’re working with FEMA to get more mapping done faster. Over the last 15 years, probably 50 counties have had new maps come out. Most of those did not change the maps that much.
They were made digital so you could overlay them like on Google Earth, and they adjusted to contour maps, too, a little better. Some of the floodplain boundaries changed slightly. I guess you could say there were cosmetic changes.”
Pulaski County and the city of Little Rock got a new floodplain map this past summer. Little Rock officials said 95 percent of the map remained the same.
Little Rock’s flood-prone area along Fourche Creek doesn’t have a lot of development because of its well-known flooding history. FEMA regulations have made floodplains less desirable as a place to do heavy development, which, in a way, helps reduce the flood problem.
Ben Peters, Bentonville’s city engineer and a certified floodplain manager, said his city doesn’t see a lot of building on higher-risk floodplain areas.
“The important thing for Bentonville to come out of this is we’re not seeing a lot of development in the floodplains,” Peters said. “Most of the time, the developments are occurring outside the floodplains, and that is sort of the direct result of the program that has been in place. The best advice – this is short but sweet – is you can use the land in a floodplain but don’t sleep there.”
Borengasser said he is focusing on getting the word out about the CRS so more communities will join.
Several populous areas such as Little Rock, Jonesboro and West Memphis participate in the program, which gives a 5 percent premium discount per rating level to anyone living in the participating area.
Little Rock citizens get 10 percent off because the city is a Level 7, while Bentonville citizens get 5 percent off for being in a Level 8 city. Borengasser said it takes a lot of work by a city to improve above Level 7 through the enforcement of FEMA’s rules and regulations.
Borengasser said the CRS came about because Congress decided that rather than make regulations more stringent, it would create incentives for communities to do more.
“Anything can happen when people least expect it,” Borengasser said. “People will say, ‘It’s never flooded here, and we’ve lived here all our lives.’ Bang, it happens. You have to be prepared for floods wherever there is a 100-year floodplain, which we use as a base.
“We have to prepare for floods when there isn’t flooding like we prepare for droughts when it isn’t dry. That’s what we’ve worked with a lot of communities to help them be more prepared.”
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