Washington Post Reports on FEMA Flood Maps for DC and the National Mall

Dear Coalition Friends,

Here from today’s Washington Post is another story about the new Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood maps for DC and the National Mall.   If you click on the Post’s website link, you can see the accompanying map of the existing flood zone and the controversial expansion of that zone to include large areas of the City and the Mall:

You can compare the old and new FEMA flood zones with a map we prepared that shows a satellite view of modern DC and the Mall superimposed on the 1793 Ellicott topographical map.  You will see that the existing FEMA flood zone includes landfill create in the 19th century, which is now occupied by the WWII Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, and Hains Point.  The expanded flood zone includes Constitution Avenue along the north side of the Mall, which paved over Tiber Creek.

District Appeals Widening Of Downtown Flood Zone

FEMA Delays Plan to Require Stricter Codes, More Insurance

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 24, 2008; B01

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has given the District more time to appeal new federal flood maps that would place large sections of downtown Washington in a hazard zone and result in stricter insurance requirements and building codes.

After receiving a joint letter from several city agencies, FEMA this month said it would wait until March 26 before giving final approval to the new maps.

District officials have expressed deep concern over the maps, which show a proposed new flood zone several blocks wide and extending in a broad crescent from the Lincoln Memorial to Fort McNair, in Southwest Washington.

The zone would include Federal Triangle, much of the Mall to the base of Capitol Hill and a large section of Southwest Washington.

The changes would dramatically expand what is called the 100-year flood zone, where residential flood insurance often is required and more-stringent building codes would take effect.

The flood maps, which are being updated in a post-Hurricane Katrina analysis, haven’t been updated since 1985, officials said. The hazard zone then was far less extensive.

City officials asked for the extra time, saying the map proposals took many people by surprise and carried large potential impacts.

“Who would ever suspect in the middle of the city . . . that you’re suddenly in a 100-year flood plain?” Harriet Tregoning, director of the District’s Office of Planning, said yesterday.

If the maps become official, residences in the zone with federally backed mortgages or with mortgages from federally backed banks would be required to have federal flood insurance, said Butch Kinerney, a spokesman for the FEMA directorate that administers the National Flood Insurance Program.

The annual cost of such insurance is about $600, he said.

Residences that are owned outright would not be required to have the insurance, he said, nor would commercial or government properties.

New buildings in the zone, however, would be required to be constructed above certain base flood levels, which vary throughout the area.

Officials have said projects such as the expansion of the Department of Commerce building and the construction of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture would have to be reviewed if the map changes are adopted because they would be partly in the new hazard zone.

The proposed new flood zones were drawn up after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported last year that the so-called Potomac Park levees, which are designed to protect downtown Washington from Potomac River flooding, are inadequate. If the levees were brought up to standard, the map would be redrawn to shrink the size of the hazard zone. That, in effect, would minimize the number of residents who must get flood insurance.

The levee system consists of temporary and permanent barriers at four locations _ three on or near the Mall, and one near Fort McNair.

The corps objected mainly to the temporary levee erected across 17th Street near the National World War II Memorial.

That levee, which has been used only six times since the 1940s, consists of sandbags and Jersey barriers covered with a plastic membrane.

In a worse case, however, plans call for building an eight-foot-high earthen dike there made of dirt excavated from the grounds of the Washington Monument. That plan has never been implemented.

The corps, which designed the system decades ago, decided after a 2006 inspection that, especially at 17th Street, it wasn’t reliable.

“We don’t believe that the earthen dike is a dependable closure structure,” said Tony Videl, head of levee safety programs for the corps’ Baltimore district, which includes Washington.

“We believe that’s a high-risk thing to do during a storm event,” he said in a recent interview. “We’ve always wanted a permanent structure there.”

Consequently, the corps declined to certify the reliability of the levees.

Corps officials said repair of the levees would have to be paid for by Congress, which in the past has authorized $7.2 million for part of the project but never made the money available. No one knows what the total cost would be.

Videl said a more sophisticated “post and panel” barrier across 17th Street, which could be erected during a flood, would up the cost. The barrier is created when panels are lowered into place between posts that are inserted into holes dug in the street.

FEMA, meanwhile, is in the process of reexamining flood maps across the country in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. As a result of the corps’ findings, FEMA drew up new flood maps for the District as if the levees didn’t exist.

The maps were unveiled last fall, but they were not widely publicized until they were discussed at a Jan. 3 meeting of the National Capital Planning Commission. The commission wrote to the city suggesting an extension of the appeal period, which expired that day.

The District Department of the Environment, the city’s point agency on the issue, wrote to FEMA on Jan. 10 requesting the extension.

“The consequences of these proposed changes are extensive and will substantially affect many stakeholders throughout the City, both commercial, private, Federal Government and the District Government,” wrote George S. Hawkins, the department director.

“While we appreciate the need to modernize and make more accurate the actual flood zones, we need this process to occur within a longer timeframe and a more inclusive process,” he wrote.

FEMA agreed to the extension the next day.


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