Building in the Floodplain

This story in the Bee Monday, January 23rd. points up the realities faced by people moving to this area, buying a lovely house in a beautiful neighborhood and then discovering that they are not really very well protected from floods, but no one told them.

The economic realities, as well as the public ones, compel us to come to grips with this disconnect, and work for optimal flood protection, not the after-the-fact type that requires evacuations and flood insurance.

Building on reclaimed flood plains is an ancient practice that pays huge benefits, once the communities involved provide optimal flood protection for their communities, their businesses, their churches, and their Parkways.

Here is an excerpt.

Behind levees, what’s real risk?
Floodplain experts say insurance rules map an unverified safety zone.
By Carrie Peyton Dahlberg — Bee Staff Writer Published 2:15 am PST Monday, January 23, 2006

James O’Carroll is still amazed at how wrong he was.

The retired teacher had been so glad to get away from the Bay Area’s earthquake risk, and so relieved he wouldn’t have to worry about flooding, either. After all, he said, the builder of his North Natomas home told him he wasn’t required to buy flood insurance.

“For a normal person, if you’re told you don’t need flood insurance, you deduce that there is no chance of flooding here,” he said. “It never entered my head that in a worst-case scenario, we could literally … be in something between 20 and 26 feet of water.”

O’Carroll later bought insurance after news coverage punctured his assumption of safety.

He still wonders, though, why he wasn’t required to buy it in the first place and why no one told him more up front when he was signing the reams of paperwork involved in home buying.

Those questions resonate throughout Sacramento, where tens of thousands of people living behind levees are not compelled to buy flood insurance even though the city arguably faces greater risk of catastrophic flooding than any other major metropolitan area in the nation.

That disconnect between actual risk and federal insurance rules has been raised repeatedly by flood experts who contend there’s something seriously wrong with the way America thinks about flooding.

A national floodplain management group and state water officials are among those who argue the federal government’s flood maps are simplistic and misleading, based on antiquated techniques for determining who is at risk and unverified assumptions about levee strength.

Even worse, they say, is that the official federal floodplain determination that triggers insurance requirements has become enormously influential in development decisions. It guides tens of thousands of communities as they decide how and where to build, and millions of families as they choose where to live and what to insure.

Designed in 1968 and toughened in the 1970s, the National Flood Insurance Program pinpoints flood-prone areas where it calculates the chances of inundation are greater than 1 in 100. The twist is that a federal 100-year floodplain isn’t determined by potential storm size alone. It also involves judgments about how levee systems will perform. That means whether a community is judged to be at flood risk has more to do with the state of its dams and levees than its geography.

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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