SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 1, 2014

Rockport challenge brings new flood maps

By James Niedzinski
Staff Writer

---- — ROCKPORT — Town officials have formally appealed flood insurance rate maps and the base flood levels imposed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

And the federal agency has sent the town a set of revised proposals for its review.

Town officials, after hiring Applied Coastal Research and Engineering Inc., said in their appeal they are “firmly of the opinion that the proposed (base flood elevations) determined by the (flood insurance survey) and shown in the preliminary (flood insurance rate maps) covering the town are scientifically and or technically incorrect.”

According to the appeal, the coastal research firm proposed that FEMA’s method of determining the base flood elevations for Sandy Bay, Main Street and Bearskin Neck do not reflect the accurate topography of the area, and as a result, “greatly overestimates the level of flooding” that can be projected for the town.

The firm also suggested the addition of two new flood areas “that better represent the complex and variable coast in our town,” Town Administrator Linda Sanders wrote to federal officials on behalf of Rockport. The new proposals by the coastal engineering firm would result in lower base flood elevation levels — defined as the level of floodwater that could be expected to occur once every 100 years.

In addition, Applied Coastal Research and Engineering Inc. stated that FEMA information “greatly over-predicts the magnitude of wave set up at Long Beach,” because the conditions were developed for the West Coast, not the East Coast, and the method used to determine the magnitude of the waves is “not appropriate in this area.”

As for the new sections of Main Street and Bearskin Neck, the firm used data from the United States Army Corps of Engineers to come up with new topography information, including aerial views and special radar information.

So far, Rockport is the only community on Cape Ann to appeal the FEMA flood insurance rate maps or the base flood elevation levels.

Rockport was requesting that FEMA withdraw the whole preliminary flood insurance map proposal, then issue a new map based on the firm’s findings. Or, as an alternative, correct the flood elevations and update the flood insurance maps.

Congressman John Tierney, whose 6th Massachusetts District includes Rockport and all of Cape Ann, has urged communities to challenge the maps, while also calling for a reform of the Biggert Waters Act of 2012.

The act requires owners of all properties with a federal mortgage and within a designated FEMA “flood hazard” to have flood insurance. FEMA officials have conceded that the law will mean higher premium rates for some, but not all, flood insurance policy holders.

Rockport officials initially filed their appeal on Nov. 5, and officials from FEMA came back with revised information last week.

Tom Tufts, a Strategic Alliance of Risk Reduction project manager, reached out to town officials, letting them know that FEMA had modified its plans based on Rockport’s appeal. The alliance works with FEMA in watershed management, hazard mapping and identification, coastal analysis and other risk areas.

Now, Tufts told officials, the town needs to send the Strategic Alliance of Risk Reduction its thoughts on the new data so federal officials can move forward with a final plan for Essex County by Jan. 17.

”It is of the upmost importance that we receive your response as quickly as possible to ensure that we meet this expedited schedule,” he said in an email to officials.

There are other problems associated with the flood insurance maps.

As the name suggests, they are tied to flood insurance risk rates. In addition, in some areas, if a structure were destroyed by a flood or other disaster, the structure would have to be rebuilt on stilts or pilings.

”If those buildings were being rebuilt, they would have to be built 22 feet above the road,” Rockport Building Inspector Paul Orlando said of properties included in any flood zone maps. “The elevations will be substantially the same as what they are now.”

Andrew Menna, a Rockport artist and Old Harbor Road resident, said he has already seen his flood insurance rates increase throughout the years.

”In the 40 years I’ve been in this location, we’ve suffered no damage,” Menna said.

James Niedzinski can be reached at 978-675-2708 or at jniedzinski@gloucestertimes.com.