Wading into local flood zone designations

This screenshot image taken from FEMA's website illustrates how to use the floodplain tools available. The address used for this example is the Argus Observer building on SW 4th Street.

MALHEUR COUNTY — The Federal Emergency Management Agency is the federal government agency that, as of July of 1979 after executive order by then-President Jimmy Carter, is responsible for “emergency management” and “civil defense” according to its website. Among these are floodplains and maps that are used to identify them. The passage of the National Flood Insurance Act in 1968 allowed for the establishment of the National Flood Insurance Program. In order for the program to operate, Congress is required to renew the “statutory authority to operate.”

The most recent renewal took place on Oct. 1, 2020 and was extended to Sept. 30, 2021.

How the maps are used practically is a question for local officials. The newspaper reached out to city and county officials to learn more about floodplains locally.

Local impact

Ontario’s Community Development Director Dan Cummings said floodplains are updated when “a community asks to have it done.” He said that “four, maybe five years ago” the city was contacted by FEMA inquired as to whether the city wanted to update its existing floodplain data.

“I said ‘Heck yes’,” said Cummings.

He explained how the city’s previous data was collected back in the 1970s and the maps were made in 1985.

“Long story short, I said yes, I hosted a town hall meeting that it would be a good idea,” Cummings said.

“New LiDAR stuff raises our floodplain,” explained Cummings.

LiDAR is an acronym that stands for “light detection and ranging” and is used to measure ranges by measuring the amount of time that it takes for a laser targeting a specific object to return to the emitting receiver.

He said that some areas that have had major flooding in years past sometimes does prompt FEMA make contact, however, it’s “mainly the communities” that reach out to them.

“Before Katrina, you could only get FEMA backed insurance policies. Now people can get more coverage,” said Cummings, “You couldn’t get flood insurance unless you were in a flood zone.”

He went on to say how there have been “a lot of changes” in the rules that determine who is eligible to get insurance policies.

“Your insurance rate is based on the risk. How far above the base flood elevation or it you’re in it,” said Cummings.

He said that “some areas don’t have floodplain information” and the person to ask about it would be Eric Evans, Malheur County Planning Director.

Planning director

The newspaper reached out to Malheur County Planning Director Eric Evans on June 7 for more information.

“We recently just updated our floodplain ordinance within the last year in the county code,” he explained.

Evans said that the county currently uses the flood insurance rate map from 1986 and that these are used to determine “base flood elevations” and whether a property owner is in a floodplain.

He said that the long-term goal for the county is to “protect our county’s rating as a whole,” adding that by doing that insurance costs can be kept down for residents because a negative rating “will cost a lot more money.”

Evans said that by keeping the community rating system down, it could potentially “save upwards of 20%” on insurance costs.

Flood mapping

The newspaper reached out to FEMA representatives to learn more about flood zones and how the organization makes its determinations. The following information was provided from the FEMA News Desk in an email received in early May.

“Flood zone designations may be established or revised when new and more accurate information becomes available because of a FEMA-funded restudy or because the community makes the information available to FEMA.”

It was stated in the email that flood mapping is “an important part” of the National Flood Insurance Program or NFIP and serves as the basis of regulations relating to NFIP and “flood insurance requirements.”

The flood mapping program is called “Risk Mapping, Assessment, and Planning” or Risk MAP” and can be found on the organization’s website.

“FEMA maintains and updates data through flood maps and risk assessments,” reads the email statement.

Using the FEMA Flood Map Service Center search tool, visitors to the website can type in an address to learn more about what zone designation it falls under.

Flood zone designations

According to the definitions of FEMA Flood Zone Designations, there are four different types of flood zone designations in the United States.

Moderate to low-risk areas, high-risk areas, high risk — coastal areas and undetermined risk areas.

Within each of these designations are sub-designations that are listed with an alphanumeric coding system that includes a corresponding description of that area.

These descriptions can all be found at FEMA’s website in the Map Service Center.

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