Who's At Risk
Federal flood maps likely underestimate the risk of hurricane storm surges in large areas of the Alabama coast. Originally published in the June 9, 2007, Mobile Press Register, this article tells the stories of people whose homes technically fall outside official flood zones but are as vulnerable as the rest, though they don't even know it.
Image: In the Danger Zone
Steve Myers

Federal Emergency Management Agency flood regulations—first developed in the 1970s to limit flood damage—played a significant role in putting 3 feet of water in Jim and Sally Wilkinson's Gulf Shores home three years ago.

The house they rented, built in 2003, sits on a concrete slab in the Brigadoon Heights neighborhood, about 300 yards from Little Lagoon.

If the FEMA flood plain maps are accurate, it's hard to explain how the Wilkinsons could have been flooded twice in two years.

Other houses closer to the lagoon were elevated on pilings or cinderblock columns because they were in FEMA's official 100-year flood plain. But Jim Wilkinson's landlord told him his house wasn't in that zone, and Wilkinson said he didn't give it another thought.

"We never had any idea we needed flood insurance," Wilkinson said.

When Hurricane Ivan drove 3 feet of water through their front door in 2004, "we lost everything inside the house, except for a few pieces that were my mother's that probably weren't any good, but we kept for sentimental reasons," Sally Wilkinson said.

They moved back in after their landlord fixed up the place, and they bought flood insurance. Katrina struck the next year, pushing water into the garage, just shy of the house's living areas.

Scientists aren't surprised when surges inundate older homes built before FEMA flood regulations kicked in. Many of the homes damaged by recent hurricanes were built before 1970. But it's increasingly clear that even people like the Wilkinsons, who live in modern homes built in strict accordance to FEMA regulations, can't be sure they're safe from frequent floods.

A Press-Register review of 36 years of storm data indicates that federal flood maps may underestimate hurricane storm surge in large areas of the Alabama coast, jeopardizing tens of thousands of residents in new homes and old homes, in beachfront and bayside homes, and along streams well inland.

Compounding the problem is that more and more development is concentrated in low-lying areas, along coastal waters most prone to flooding. A recent University of Alabama study has projected that the area encompassing Pleasure Island, including the cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, will grow faster than any other census tract in Baldwin County—a county that led the state in the number of new housing starts between 2000 and 2005, and is one of the fastest growing counties in the United States.

Orange Beach alone accounted for nearly 20 percent of the housing starts in the county during the period. Much of that was in multi-unit high-rises, but according to the city's growth management plan, half of the land zoned for new development in the city will be devoted to single-family units.

All of Pleasure Island is within easy walking distance of Mobile Bay, Perdido Bay or Gulf beaches, which has driven the explosive development. But most of Pleasure Island's existing or planned housing units are within the federally designated 100-year flood plain, and virtually all of them lie within the 500-year flood plain.

Similarly rapid development is occurring along Weeks Bay, Perdido Bay, Oyster Bay, Fish River and Magnolia River in Baldwin County, and along the flood plains of Fowl River in Mobile County—all areas with a history of frequent floods.

Many people in those areas, like the Wilkinsons, seem to have little comprehension of the risk they're taking. And FEMA's flood plain advice only seems to add to their confusion.

If the FEMA flood plain maps are accurate, it's hard to explain how the Wilkinsons could have been flooded twice in two years.

Part of their lot is even outside FEMA's 500-year flood plain, which statistically "should not be flooded at all," said Joe Suhayda, a retired Louisiana State University professor with extensive experience in storm surge modeling.

Even some people who did weigh their flooding risk have lost out in recent hurricanes. Mobile County Engineer Joe Ruffer requires builders to survey their land and build above the 100-year flood level, which is in line with FEMA's recommendation.

In 1997, Ruffer built his own house on Fowl River about 1.3 feet above the 100-year flood level. But that little bit extra wasn't quite enough—Katrina still put 3 inches of water inside.

In theory, mortgage companies are responsible for determining if new homeowners are in a flood plain, and the lenders should require those who are to buy flood insurance. But the Press-Register found several people with mortgaged homes in the flood plain who hadn't obtained flood insurance.

"We didn't have to have it," Rosemary Dunnam said as she sat outside her FEMA trailer on Buena Drive off Navco Road in southern Mobile.

"You would think the mortgage company would've insisted on it."

It should have. The Dunnam's house, now uninhabitable after Katrina's 4-foot surge inside, is well within the FEMA flood zone because the lot backs up to Eslava Creek. Waterways like Eslava Creek channeled Katrina's flooding miles inland.

Rosemary and her husband are hoping for a government buyout, which will give them enough money to move on and prevent anyone from building there in the future.

One of their neighbors, Bobbie Cole, also wasn't covered for her flood damage though she said she has a mortgage on her home. Cole lives a bit further from Eslava Creek, but she, too, is within FEMA's flood plain.

"At the time, I don't guess nobody knew this was a flood-prone area," she said. "I wasn't advised anything about (flood insurance). If I had been, I would have gotten it."

She figures that at least a foot of water poured into her house during Katrina. She spent weeks drying it out and repairing it.

"Nobody had to tell me about getting insurance after Katrina," she said. "I figured I had better get it myself."

Originally published on June 9, 2007 in the Mobile Press-Register. Courtesy of the Press-Register 2007 © All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.