Thursday, June 04, 2009

City has until 2011 to halt new flood maps

Rates for flood insurance could soar for thousands of property owners near the Trinity River levees in Dallas unless the city can prove by January 2011 that the levees can meet federal standards.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will redraw Dallas' flood maps in 2011, unless the city can certify the levees would protect Dallas from a 100-year flood. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a report March 31 that raised questions about the effectiveness of the levees, and rescinded assurances it had given to FEMA previously that they would safeguard the city.

The city's scramble to beat that deadline comes as the city announced Monday that it will spend $29 million and more than two years to test the integrity of the levees.

Mayor Tom Leppert, speaking at a news conference, insisted the levee problems won't prevent the city from completing the Trinity toll road or any of the many recreation components that are part of the largest public works project in Dallas history.

"There is no one that wants to move forward with this project more rapidly than I do," Leppert said.

"None of us are happy about a delay, but none of us are losing sight of where we are going with this project. ... All of the elements of this project are doable."

Both U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson spoke as well, and each praised the city for its steadfast pursuit of the project, which they said would be completed despite delays.

"No one has been more frustrated than I have been," Johnson said. But "the delay will be because of us trying to be sure that we are being responsible leaders trying to get it done correctly."

If the flood-risk maps are redrawn, properties in areas now protected by the levees would be considered high risk, and their rates for flood insurance would skyrocket.

Leppert said Monday that owners should buy insurance now because rates are much lower while the current maps are in effect. In addition, some property owners who buy insurance when the rates are cheaper may be eligible for a discount against higher rates once the maps are redrawn, a spokeswoman for FEMA said Monday.

"But there is no guarantee they won't have to pay the [full] higher rate," Cindy Wirz said. "The reason to buy insurance is to protect your home and your business against loss in case of a flood. Everyone behind a levee should have insurance."

John Benda, whose Fuel City complex on Industrial Boulevard is located in the shadow of the levee, said he was disappointed to learn he'll have to add flood insurance to his list of bills.

"It makes my heart drop, but I guess I'll call today and see how much flood insurance will cost," he said.

Wirz said FEMA will spend the next year working on new flood maps for Dallas, and issue preliminary versions of the new flood-risk areas probably by next May. At that time, she said, residents will have 90 days to file an appeal, asking for their home or their neighborhood to be taken out of the high-risk area.

That gives the city until about January 2011, she said, but noted that the schedule could be pushed back slightly depending on how fast the work proceeds.

The appeals, she said, will likely come from homeowners whose neighborhoods, for instance, are built on a hill or from businesses who have built their properties at higher elevations. "We really do listen and use that information" provided by residents who appeal, Wirz said.

Once those appeals are completed, the agency would issue a notice of final determination, giving six months' notice of the new maps so residents in the new high-risk zones can get insurance. Insurance will be required for any property in a high-risk area that is secured by a federally backed mortgage, Wirz said.

Still, FEMA officials said they will immediately stop the remapping process if Dallas can certify that its levees will protect against a 100-year flood. That's exactly what Dallas officials hope to do.

"We hope to beat them to it," said Stephen Parker, the city's flood plain manager.

The city hopes to determine by the end of the year what it will take to certify the levees can withstand a 100-year flood, officials said. Any fixes are planned to be completed by late 2010, according to a briefing that will be given to the City Council on Wednesday.

A 100-year flood is a flood that has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year. For comparison, a flood in 1990, the biggest in recent memory, was considered about a 50-year flood, said Parker. A 100-year event would have probably sent waters just 1 to 2 feet higher than they rose that year, he said.

Still, despite the aggressive timetable, there is no guarantee that the city will be able to certify the levees are effective against a 100-year flood before 2011.

Efforts to do so come amid enormous other challenges stemming from the March 31 report by the corps, which flunked the 23-mile levee system. The corps said then it was concerned the levees could not protect against an 800-year flood, as they were designed to do. And they said there was no guarantee they would even protect against a flood equal to the 1990 event.

On Monday, Leppert announced that the city would spend more than two years to determine whether the failed inspections point to severe structural flaws as well. That study will cost $29 million and involve taking some 1,500 soil samples so engineers can perform geotechnical analyses that will cost about $8,600 each.

In addition, the city will spend some $8 million in the next fiscal year to increase its upkeep of the levees. Some of that will be a one-time expense, but Dallas will need to find about $4.5 million more for levee maintenance each year, officials said.

In addition, the city will have to pay for several major maintenance projects, officials said Monday. No price tag for these major maintenance expenses has been released, though the city said it will first have to get corps approval for the projects and then hire contractors to perform the work.

None of those expenses, however, will repair whatever the two-year study finds. Those repairs could involve major construction projects or other steps that could cost tens of millions of dollars, or more.

City Manager Mary Suhm said Monday that it is still too early to know what fixes will be required, or how much they will cost. She said that's the purpose of the study, which is expected to be completed by 2012.

"They have a lot of work to do," Parker said of the work planned for the city.

Staff writer Rudolph Bush contributed to this article.

By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER / DMN