Those Pesky Flood Zone A Determinations

By Scott Shambach

flood zoneMost of us can remember the devastation of Hurricane Katrina as it bore down and utterly destroyed New Orleans in August 2005.  We were shocked at much of the news footage of a city underwater and the inability of humanity to manage the force of such a monster storm.  Our compassion rose and donations poured in while masses of people converged to assist those who lost everything they owned, some even loss of life.

As usual, after the storm, the analysis began.  Why did this happen?  What went wrong?  What went right?  And of course, the political spectrum exploded.  This post is not about a position on the political spectrum.  However, it is related to the results of the debate.

I must be honest.  As I sit in front of my computer, comfortably in my home nestled on top of a high wooded ridge, I do not think for a second about the possibility of my house being flooded.  It was a primary criterion for finding my building lot because every other house I previously lived in required a sump pump and I was having no more of that.  So, when I heard that they were going to rebuild New Orleans even though it was situated below sea level I was astounded.  Why?  Yes, there are reasons both personal and economical.  But still, why would you want to?

Politically, decisions were made regarding the outlay of funds used to build in flood prone areas.  They effected the lending institutions which were required to force owners to obtain flood insurance.  If you build in a flood prone area, you need flood insurance.  Makes sense, right?  Well yes, but we will leave this path to other discussions.  There is a larger problem that arose from the implementation of this decision.

If you have a mortgage, desire to take out a mortgage or a home equity loan, the lending institution must check to determine whether you are in a 100 year floodplain.  Where does this information ultimately come from.  FEMA Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRM).  The lending institution’s decision is black and white.  Are you in the flood plain, yes or no.  There could be discussion on the accuracy of the decision based on the readability of the FIRM.  Other than that, there is no lee way for the lending institution due to Federal requirements.

One of the problems is with the FIRM itself.  They are produced by FEMA.  FEMA is out of money.  FIRMs are costly to develop.  Therefore, urbanized areas are prioritized.  Base Flood Elevations (BFE) are established based on flood modeling and it can determined what elevation above sea level the flood waters will reach.  These are known as located in Flood Zone AE or a flood zone with elevations, hence the “E”.  Surveys can be conducted from verifiable data exactly where that BFE will be in relation to your property.  See the blog post on Elevation Certificates Explained.

But what about those rural areas that are not prioritized for a detailed study to determine a BFE?  They are shown in what is known as a Flood Zone A.  A Flood Zone A is defined as an “approximation” of the flood zone without a detailed study.  They were a necessity for implementation of the FIRM without the time and expense of analyzing each and every drainage area within the flood maps coverage area.  Ok, I get that.  The problem is how closely they were approximated.

I liken the implementation of the Zone A mapping to the use of a paint brush.  If FEMA determined that a drainage area was large enough to cause flood damage, an approximation was warranted.  To show this area, and on a limited time and financial budget, they used their “paint brush” to draw that all important limit upstream.  Herein lays a major problem.  Instead of using an artist’s paint brush, they used a four-inch paint brush better suited for painting a barn or a shed.  Not only did some of those lines get painted erroneously, some were painted ridiculously.

So, like me, in 2005 you may well have been saying, “Why would you build in an area that is going to be flooded?”  One day you want to borrow money and your lender tells you that you need flood insurance because you live in an area that is going to be flooded.  Your lender has a face so your immediate reaction may be directed there.  But remember, the lender’s statement is based on black and white information.  Are you shown in a Flood Zone A or AE?

What can you do?  Unlike the criminal justice system where you are innocent until proven guilty, in this scenario you are guilty until proven innocent.  FEMA recognized that there are areas of their approximations that were mapped as being in a flood zone that should not have.  As a result, they also provided a means for determining the accuracy of their approximation.  You must remember, however, that some approximations are also correct.  But if your structure is located significantly higher than a small stream next to it, you may begin to wonder, especially if the “other side” is much lower than your side.  You must also realize that even though you may have built your house forty years ago and you never had water, the same may not be true for today.  Remember that we are talking about what is referred to as a 100-year flood (although that term is misunderstood) and changes have occurred which may have effected the flooding since the last “Big One”.

Here is where Meck-Tech, Inc. can come into the picture.  If you are in Zone A, you can choose to have an Elevation Certificate for Zone A without elevations completed and pay the flood insurance premium.  If you honestly believe you are too close to the creek and you have experienced or expect to experience flooding, this may be your only option.  However, if you suspect that the flood waters would not reach your structure, Meck-Tech can assess your situation and provide the necessary documentation to have your structure removed from that zone through a Letter of Map Amendment whereby you would no longer be required to purchase flood insurance.  If you are required to purchase flood insurance and your rates are extremely high because the degree of flooding is unknown, Meck-Tech can also establish a BFE to quantify the depth of flooding which may reduce your premium.

Every situation is different as each flood event is different.  If you want more information, contact us and there may be a remedy for the situation you find yourself in.

Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys

By Scott Shambach

surveyor girlHow many remember the song Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson? If you are into country music, it’s a good tune. Even if you aren’t, give it a try. If you listen to the song and decide to follow its advice, let me give you a tad of parenting advice. You better provide a good alternative.

Allow me to make a recommendation. According to the website All About Surveying (http://www.beasurveyor.com), in most states the average age of a surveyor is 57 years old. This means that states are losing 10% of their surveyors annually to retirement. Ask yourself, “How many surveyors do I know?” Now, being kind, how old do you think they are? Are they over or under the average age? I will be transparent. As of this writing I have less than a year to become average.

Also, let me be specific in stating that when I refer to a surveyor, I am referring to one who has completed all state requirements to receive a Professional License in Surveying (PLS). I am not taking away from those who are able to do the work of a surveyor in various aspects. But the many legal requirements often mandate the stamp of a PLS.

I don’t think I have to explain what the definition of average is, but lets a take a look at what this average is indicating. In order to lower the average age two components need to change. Either the number of those over the average needs to be reduced or the number of those under the average needs to be increased. Due to retirement, the former is going to happen automatically. Unfortunately, that creates shortage. The latter is much more desirable. While the former creates job security and higher wages for us “old timers”, it creates time delays and higher costs for clients. The latter provides opportunities for an exciting career that many may have overlooked.

So, what does it take? For one, it takes interest. If you do a job just because it pays well or you are shoved into it, you will not get a lot of satisfaction. But if you do a job you enjoy, it becomes less like work. It also takes a degree of aptitude. Not everyone is suited for surveying. But what I found out about aptitude is that it takes exploring. If you don’t look, you don’t know. Most importantly, it takes action.

Each state has their own licensing requirements. Here in Pennsylvania the most common path is a college degree (associate’s or bachelor), followed by a Fundamentals of Land Survey (FLS) exam to begin apprenticeship and then a minimum of four years of job experience. At the end of that, you present your experience to the License Board for acceptance to take you PLS exam. Check your state for individual requirements. Pennsylvania College of Technology offers an Associates Degree while Penn State Wilkes-Barre offers both an Associates and Bachelors Degree. A minimum of an Associates Degree in Land Survey is required in order to sit for the FLS.

With an associate’s degree from either of these two colleges, a candidate can enter into the beginning of an exciting and rewarding career. It is my opinion, this is an often overlooked opportunity. A two year degree cuts the cost of education and puts the candidate into a job market where competition for good jobs is much smaller.

Mama’s, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys or cowgirls. Instead, have them talk to a surveyor. Have them get a catalog from a school that offers a degree in surveying that qualifies for taking the FLS in your state. Explore the possibilities and you may find a hidden nugget that can be both profitable and very satisfying.

FEMA Is Raising the River Again

If you own property along the 100 mile stretch of the Susquehanna River main stem/north branch in Pennsylvania between the Snyder County/Juniata County line and the Kingston / Swoyersville area, brace yourself for dramatic revisions to the base flood elevation, or the 100-year flood elevation, to be published in 2018 by FEMA.

The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) was created in 1968.  Hurricane Agnes struck our Central Susquehanna River Valley Region in June 1972 and devastated everything in its path.  Original Flood Insurance Studies were published for our region in the mid-1970’s.  The studies were comprehensive, but the mapping associated with the studies that showed floodplain boundaries were quite often difficult to read.  Nevertheless, professional surveyors, insurance agents, realtors, and banks gained familiarity with the studies, and how to use them to determine whether or not a building was located within the floodplain.  These studies were used for 35 years.high water on the Susquehanna

In 2007, new Flood Insurance Studies were published for our region.  The new studies were based on a detailed HEC-RAS hydraulic model prepared by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) in 2003.  The mapping in the new studies was much improved, and accessible by computer.  A user of the new studies is able to “zoom-in” on the mapping to see better the location of a floodplain boundary with respect to a given structure.

The analysis in the 2007 Studies accounted for 40 years of development throughout the watershed, and the additional data provided from 40 more years of flooding records.  The 2007 studies showed increases to the 100-year flood elevation throughout the region.  As a result, properties that were never in the floodplain before were now in the floodplain, and properties previously identified as being in the floodplain were shown to be deeper in floodwaters during a 100-year storm event.

From December 2007 through June 2009 we suffered through the Great Recession, the sale of properties slowed down, and although the Recession officially ended in 2009, the volume of property sales in our region remained sluggish through 2013.  The impact of the Recession on new Flood Insurance Studies published in 2007 was that surveyors, insurance agents, realtors, and bankers did not have much opportunity to work with the new studies until 2014.

While we were navigating our way out of the Great Recession, on September 4-8, 2011, Tropical Storm Lee dropped record-breaking rain on the region, producing widespread flooding.  In response to this event, FEMA tasked the USACE to conduct a basin flood data assessment and update the 2003 analysis to reflect hydrologic and hydraulic changes that have occurred since the 2007 Studies.

The peak flow for this study is based on statistical analysis of past events at river gaging stations.  The analysis included flow records up to and including Tropical Storm Lee.  The analysis established that peak flow estimates have increased for the Susquehanna River.  In the 100 mile study area of the river, base flood elevations increase by up to 4.8 feet.  FEMA feels that such significant increases in flood risk needs to be communicated to residents / property owners.

Until the 2007 Flood Insurance Studies are officially revised again, which is estimated to be 2018, FEMA is providing citizens online access to the post-Lee study as “best available data” to use when considering raising a property above flood elevations, constructing something new in the floodplain, or considering the future cost of flood insurance on a property.  The information is not regulatory at this time, but FEMA has indicated that it will be when Flood Insurance Studies are published again.  The map is available on the FEMA GeoPlatform by going to http://fema.maps.arcgis.com/home/ and entering “Wyoming Valley, Pennsylvania” in the search box in the upper right corner.  FEMA has strongly suggested that the advisory information in the Tropical Storm Lee study be formally adopted and utilized for permitting and mitigation planning.

Additionally, the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 (BW-12) was passed on July 6, 2012, taking effect October 2013.  Eliminating subsidies for flood insurance premiums sent Flood Insurance policy premiums sky high, and made many properties in the floodplain unaffordable, even for existing property owners.

Throughout our 100 mile reach of the Susquehanna River, this perfect storm of trying to get up to speed on the 2007 Flood Insurance Studies that were rarely used for five years during  the recession and its aftermath, trying to understand the impact and requirements of BW-12 and it’s attempted fix, the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act of 2014, and trying to navigate the impact of FEMA’s “best available mapping” which raises base flood elevations beyond those of the 2007 Flood Insurance Studies has professionals and property owners reeling.

If you own property in the 100 year floodplain, you will need an elevation certificate completed for your property.  We have been completing elevation certificates for property owners in the Central Susquehanna Valley since Flood Insurance Rate Mapping was created in the 1970’s.  We have committed to prioritizing the completion of all elevation certificate requests we receive.  We will complete them in two weeks or less.

If you need assistance navigating the aforementioned Studies and Laws and their impact on your property in the floodplain, or if you need to have an elevation certificate completed for your property, just contact us, and one of our professionals will gladly walk you through the process and review our fee schedule with you.  Good Luck.

Elevation Certificates Explained

Elevation Certificates are fast becoming an important document for homeowners and business owners in the floodplain.

Elevation Certificates Explained

Congress passed the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 (BW-12) on July 6, 2012.  The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) was created in 1968.  Over the past 45 years, tens of billions of dollars have been paid in claims to help people recover from the devastation of flooding.  BW-12 was passed as an attempt to sustain the program.

Flood events over the past 10 years, such as Katrina and Sandy have drained the program to a 25 billion dollar deficit.  Some property owners whose homes and businesses are in the 100 year floodplain have been enjoying subsidized insurance premium rates for years.  The subsidies exist as a method of “grandfathering” structures that were built prior to the NFIP.  Premiums are subsidized by other flood insurance policy holders, and the public in general.

BW-12 moves to eliminate subsidized rates, and provide insurance rates commensurate with a structure’s full risk.  This is called “the full risk rate”.  The full risk rate of a structure is based on several factors, including the structure type, number of stories, foundation type, and elevation of the structure’s lowest floor as compared to the base flood elevation, or the 100-year flood elevation.

In order to accurately identify the lowest elevation of a building, an elevation certificate must be completed by a licensed professional surveyor, engineer, or architect.  The elevation certificates are a FEMA form that identifies basic property information, flood insurance rate map (FIRM) information, building elevation information, and the information is certified by the licensed professional.

On the elevation certificate, the FIRM information will document the base flood elevation, and the field survey will document the elevation of the lowest floor, next higher floor, floor elevation of an attached garage, lowest elevation of equipment serving the structure, lowest adjacent grade next to the structure, highest adjacent grade next to the structure, and the lowest adjacent grade at the lowest elevation of deck or stairs.

The elevation certificate is then provided to an insurance agent, who will compare the base flood elevation to the various building elevations provided by the professional.  The agent will then determine the appropriate “full risk rate” premium for the property owner’s flood insurance policy.

For any structure in the floodplain, the elevation certificates will be required when the property is bought/sold, or used for refinancing and a mortgage is involved.  An appropriate insurance premium must be determined to satisfy eligibility of a prospective buyer to close on the sale.   elevation certificates blog, featured image, meck-tech inc. selinsgrove pa

We have been completing elevation certificates for property owners in the central Susquehanna valley since Flood Insurance Rate Mapping was created in the 1970’s after Hurricane Agnes devastated this part of the country.  We have committed to prioritizing the completion of all elevation certificate requests we receive.  We have been completing them in two weeks or less.

If you need to have an elevation certificate completed for your property, just contact us, and one of our professionals will gladly walk you through the process and review our fee schedule with you.  Good Luck.