Safeguarding lives and properties in Louisa County is “good government.” But the 2016 Louisa County Board of Supervisors’ decision to remove the county from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is not. The issue needs revisiting.
Here’s what the county lost as a result of the 2016 decision. There are no NFIP insurance policies or renewals available to any county resident; and, for high-risk flood areas, no federal disaster assistance for damage caused by a flood, no federal grants or loans for acquisition or construction of buildings, and no federal mortgage insurance or loan guarantees.
There is no proven long term substitute for the NFIP. Many mortgage lenders only accept NFIP coverage for high risk properties. Although private/for-profit insurers offer alternatives to the NFIP, the unreliability of the private market is the reason the NFIP was created. Private policies are still a relatively small portion of the market and there may not be enough funds collected from premiums to cover disasters and some policies are not backed by the state guaranty fund for bankruptcy.
Flooding remains one of the most deadliest and costliest natural disasters in the nation. The general rule of thumb for flood insurance is that if your home experiences rain, it can experience a flood. At least 25 percent of NFIP flood claims come from low and moderate risk areas across the country.
There were two main drivers of the 2016 decision–the perception that FEMA standards amounted to overregulation and the inaccuracy of FEMA’s maps depicting the county’s high-risk flood zones.
Updated FEMA standards govern all development and activities in a high-risk flood zone called a floodplain. Those standards ensure that both residential and commercial development is regulated by special permit. During the 2016 board meetings, prominent landowners and developers, including agricultural and timber interests, spoke out against these standards as being federal government “overreach.” The board’s decision seems to have been influenced primarily by this view without considering longer-term impacts. Based on the board’s meeting videos, at no time during the 2016 meetings did board members discuss or debate publicly the issues and implications involved. Some supervisors admitted that they needed more time to digest the subject, their comments ignored.
Inexplicably, the board of supervisors enacted a new flood ordinance that essentially provides no specific floodplain regulations at all. Construction and repair of habitable buildings are permitted if in compliance only with standard state/county building codes. All other uses of the land are effectively allowed without a building permit. This failure to regulate is a costly mistake. Any land development in a floodplain can significantly affect water flows and drainage patterns over time, increasing flood hazards.
The other key concern, now overtaken by events, was FEMA’s lack of precision data (elevation data) in mapping floodplain boundaries. But FEMA recently produced more accurate maps using updated technical tools that measure the needed information.
Why is Louisa County the only county in Virginia without even the minimum national standards for flood protection? This short-sighted decision should be reversed.
Editor’s note: this piece originally appeared as a letter to the editor in the January 18th edition of the Central Virginian, and has been re-posted here with the author’s permission.