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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Faulty Flood Maps: Who is to Blame?
By Michael D. Bates & Tony Marrero

Now that the Southwest Florida Water Management District has acknowledged that its flood maps are faulty, who is going to be held accountable?

And, perhaps even more important to taxpayers, who is going to pay for the multi-million project to update the 23-year-old Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) maps?

The accountability answer will not be swift in coming, as both entities — the water agency and the county — are trying to explain their sides of the issue.

However, it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see who will end up paying monetarily to come up with a revised set of maps: you and me.

“The taxpayers — they’re the ones that paid for them in the first place,” said prominent land use attorney Jake Varn, who formerly served as Swiftmud’s assistant executive director and former secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation. “Whether it’s FEMA or the water management district, it all comes from the taxpayer,” Varn said.

As for accountability, Varn said there’s blame to go around on both sides.

The county “jumped the gun” by using the map data that was not yet verified to be accurate and now faces potential liability from homeowners or developers who were told to elevate their property, he said.

Swiftmud must also answer questions about why, in advising the consultants that produced the maps, it didn’t ask them to include infiltration or “percolation” data in compiling their final product.

Percolation is the how water seeps through soil and at what rate.

For example, in parts of Spring Hill, which is made up of fine sands, water tends to have rapid soil infiltration. By comparison, there are parts of the county with clay soils commonly referred to as the Brooksville Ridge, where there is much clay and the water doesn’t infiltrate as rapidly.

Tolbert: Changes made

In an Oct. 19 letter, Swiftmud acknowledged that the models it used to calculate flood maps sent to Hernando County and other county governments were erroneous and that efforts were under way to correct the problem.

The admission comes after Hernando County officials have already started enforcing the maps by requiring homeowners to make improvements to their property.

Days later, County Building Department Director Grant Tolbert told Hernando Today his department changed the way it issues stormwater permits for residents and builders.

Tolbert said again Friday that he would no longer consider the Swiftmud maps as the “best and available” information when considering whether a home or development falls into a flood zone.

If the county uses the maps at all, it will be as a guide, he said. After consulting with county engineers, staffers may decide to stick with the 1984 FEMA maps or use a combination of the Swiftmud and FEMA maps, he said.

Swiftmud issued a disclaimer on its Web site cautioning government agencies that the maps may be subject to revisions and that the information contained in them should be used only as a reference.

But Tolbert said the water agency issued that disclaimer after the county started talking to developers and realized there may be problems associated with the maps.

“We never got that disclaimer from Swiftmud until after these issues started getting raised by developers and builders that they didn’t agree with some of these elevations,” Tolbert said.

The county, he said, was enforcing the maps before it knew the maps were in dispute. Now, the situation has changed, he said.

“The way we are looking at the maps is different than the ways we were doing it before,” Tolbert said. “We are considering them like we did before but asking for an earlier review from engineering to determine if the map we have in front of us is the best available information.’

Difference of opinion

Tolbert said the details as presented in a Nov. 6 Hernando Today story, detailing the county’s changes in enforcing the maps, were factual. There has indeed been a change in enforcement policy, he said.

But not everyone agrees with the terminology.

Assistant County Attorney Kent Weissinger, in a Nov. 8 e-mail to Hernando Today, said two things bothered him about the story: That Hernando Today is “trying to take credit for the alleged change in map use” and that “there really isn’t much of a change.”

“As I understand the matter, issues with map accuracy were called to the attention of the county and Swiftmud long ago,” Weissinger wrote. “In specific areas, documentation was made available of map issues long before Swiftmud finally admitted in writing that there are errors in the maps, based on incomplete data collection and analysis.

“It is clear that, when issued, the new maps were in fact the best available information,” Weissinger said.

Time line

By October of 2006, it was clear to both county and Swiftmud staff that not all the data coming in for the maps was accurate because infiltration rates needed to be included, according to Mark Hammond, director of the district’s resource management department.

That month, the county asked Swiftmud to submit a request to FEMA asking that infiltration be factored into the flood plain models. Swiftmud did.

FEMA didn’t respond until May, 2007, when the agency finally did give permission for infiltration rates to be factored into the models.

Between January and May of this year, Swiftmud and county staff had a series of meetings, Hammond said.

During a meeting on May 2, the district informed the county that the maps could no longer be considered “the best available” information because of just how skewed the results were in many places because of the need to include infiltration.

The district followed that up with a letter dated May 15 that put a disclaimer on the maps stating that the flood models results “were not finalized.”

The county, in response, “indicated they had a process to address” the impacts on the building permit and zoning process, Hammond recalled.

So why didn’t Swiftmud include infiltration all along?

The goal was to take a “conservative approach” toward formulating flood models, Hammond said. FEMA, after all, never included infiltration rates in the process.

“Once we starting looking at the results, we realized it was too conservative,” Hammond said.

“I think we’ve accepted our responsibility to get the right information and correct anything that needs to be corrected,” Hammond said.

End result could take until 2011

Swiftmud hopes to have the maps ready for public review by next summer and completed and ready to submit to FEMA by November of next year.

FEMA has its own public appeals process that likely won’t begin until 2009, Hammond said. It’s unclear, he said, because there is no way to know how quickly FEMA will get started once the agency receives the maps.

In Hillsborough County, the process took two years, Hammond said. That means the final FEMA approval of the maps might not come until 2011.

Swiftmud is working in partnership with the county and FEMA to pay for the maps. The cost had been projected at $5.3 million, and the three agencies are splitting that in thirds. Now, however, the cost is sure to climb. Swiftmud officials are slated to meet with consultants next week, when the district will point out errors and submit the wider scope to include infiltration and the most recent topographic data.

The consultants then will figure how much the extra work will add to the price tag, Hammond said.

Hernando Today
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