Fending for Themselves
Unlike Mississippi, where federal officials wouldn't allow people to build homes unless they met certain requirements, coastal Alabamans have been left to rely on outdated flood maps that underestimate the risk of flooding. This report originally appeared in the June 10, 2007, Mobile Press-Register.
Image: In the Danger Zone
Steve Myers

Hurricane Katrina's destruction in Mississippi was still fresh when federal officials decided they wouldn't let people continue to build low on the coast there. The Federal Emergency Management Agency quickly released advisory flood elevations and pressured local governments to adopt them.

Homeowners and local officials in coastal Alabama, however, have pretty much been on their own to deal with FEMA flood maps that many experts agree are out of date and substantially underestimate the risk of coastal flooding.

The result is a patchwork of building regulations in Mobile and Baldwin counties as governments have responded differently to recent storm damage.

While much of the reconstruction in Alabama was under way, FEMA officials maintained that nothing was wrong with the maps. Recently, they've acknowledged that there may be problems and have pledged to address them, although the most optimistic estimate is that new maps won't be ready until 2010.

In the meantime, local officials acknowledge the risk of repeated flooding outside FEMA's official zones but say they have little regulatory authority there.

The result is a patchwork of building regulations in Mobile and Baldwin counties as governments have responded differently to recent storm damage. Gulf Shores and Orange Beach have increased their minimum building elevations in the flood zone, for instance, but Mobile has left elevations unchanged even though Katrina exceeded the 100-year predictions in the southeastern part of the city.

Several local building officials who reviewed Press-Register research on flood damage said it confirms what they suspected while surveying their communities after Ivan and Katrina: the FEMA flood maps can't be trusted.

"If you've got storms that are putting water outside the flood zone, the historical data tells me you should expand the flood zone," said Mike Howell, Baldwin County building inspector.

FEMA's flood maps predict what areas would be under water in a 100-year storm, a storm so severe that it has only a 1 percent chance of occurring in any year. Mortgage companies use the maps to determine who must have flood insurance, and local governments refer to the maps to set minimum building requirements.

In an interview with the Press-Register last fall, FEMA regional official Brad Loar said Mobile County homeowners battered by Katrina should rebuild to the current standards, which at the time included a safety margin of 1 foot above the flood predictions.

But some local officials say recent storm surges suggest that the 1-foot safety margin isn't nearly high enough, given the flooding of Ivan and Katrina.

Surveying damage after Ivan in southeastern Baldwin County, Howell observed about 3 feet of water in houses that had been built 5 or 6 feet above sea level. At his recommendation, county commissioners created a safety margin of 3 feet above the 100-year level.

Likewise, officials in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores raised their safety margin 1 to 2 feet because newer buildings hadn't escaped serious damage.

In Mobile County, Bayou La Batre took no action for about a year and a half after Katrina, but in March the city raised building requirements by a foot in the official FEMA flood plain.

Tommy Reynoso, the Bayou La Batre building inspector, said last fall that the city had been waiting on FEMA to provide guidance. FEMA, however, never acted, although the agency lobbied governments in nearby coastal Mississippi to raise their building elevations.

Reynoso said last week he didn't know how many permits had been issued under each standard. But he has said some people in town had already decided themselves to elevate their homes by a foot or two as they rebuilt.

Still, Doug Martin, who has an office in town and lives in Coden, said he has observed few people elevating. For people without flood insurance, "economically, they're constrained" to rebuild just as before, he said.

Mobile County, meanwhile, initially relaxed its rebuilding rules for some homes badly damaged by Katrina: those that sat a foot or less below its minimum elevation standard. Otherwise, the owners would have had to elevate the homes to the county's standard even if the difference were just a few inches.

County Engineer Joe Ruffer said that forcing everyone to adhere to one standard would have been "more of a form of harassment than solving a problem. A couple of inches isn't going to help anything."

Just a few homes were affected, according to Ted Montgomery, head of the county's building inspection department.

Ruffer said he thought that the city of Mobile acted similarly, but City Engineer Bob Vogtner said Mobile made no changes to its flood ordinance after Katrina. "That foot (safety margin), to me, is important."

Last fall, after many Katrina rebuilding permits had been issued, Mobile County added a foot to its safety margin to account for Katrina's storm surge.

"I think people are foolish if they build back exactly where they were when they were flooded," said Bob Hunter, a former head of the National Flood Insurance Program who now handles insurance matters for the Consumer Federation of America. "You don't need a map to know it's flood-prone."

Rising above the waves

Hurricanes don't just flood buildings—they can shake them apart. FEMA maps predict what areas will see destructive waves and require special construction methods. There, homes must be built on piers or pilings and elevated above the height of crashing surf.

But building officials in coastal Baldwin County say those areas, called "V-zones" or velocity zones, also underestimate how far inland destructive waves travel during storms. Baldwin officials have raised building elevation rules on the coast even more to deal with them.

Orange Beach building official Lannie Smith said Ivan's worst damage on the beachfront was to buildings that weren't constructed to withstand waves. Until 2002, some parts of the beach were not included in V-zones, so buildings there could stand on shallow concrete foundations.

"Had they built to our V-zone standards, we wouldn't have had problems," he said.

Katrina caused a similar problem in Mississippi, destroying buildings that weren't intended to deal with such forces. FEMA maps that outline the extent of Katrina's flooding show that 3-foot waves reached well beyond the V-zones—in fact, 4 miles inland at the Alabama-Mississippi line.

Likewise, the west end of Dauphin Island north of Bienville Boulevard isn't a V-zone, even though that part of the island gets overwashed during hurricanes. The city of Dauphin Island also decided after Katrina to add another foot onto its safety margin for building elevations. Smith said V-zones are too small in part because FEMA's flood maps, which have changed little on the Alabama coast in 20 years, assume that dunes will protect inland areas. But storms have eroded beachfront, and development has destroyed dunes.

"We don't have any more dunes—they're gone," he said.

Aerial photographs show that some sections of Baldwin's beachfront have eroded 100 feet compared to the shoreline reflected on FEMA maps. On Dauphin Island, some beachfront lots are even underwater. On Mobile Bay, several homeowners described how much land has been eaten away by storms, forcing them to build seawalls.

"There's a stump 60 feet in the bay that was a green pine tree when we moved here," said Bellefontaine resident Doug Perryman.

All that erosion means buildings are that much closer to a hurricane's roiling, destructive waves.

Even if local officials decide to adjust their safety margin, the impact is limited to the 100-year flood zone. Outside that area, local governments require little in the way of building elevations, and lenders don't mandate flood insurance there, either.

So while people within the flood plain can be held to a higher standard, those just a short distance away can build on the ground and don't have to buy flood insurance.

"We're not qualified, in my opinion, to move that flood line," said Howell, the Baldwin County building inspector.

That falls to FEMA.

FEMA response

While Katrina's surge didn't end at the Mississippi-Alabama line, in many ways FEMA's guidance has. From advisory flood elevations to aerial photographs detailing the storm's surge, the agency has focused to the west.

Recently, however, the agency has said it will do a full examination of coastal flooding in Alabama.

Agency officials initially responded to Press-Register questions about Katrina's impact in Alabama by emphasizing how much worse damage was closer to the storm's landfall and maintaining that surge wasn't unusual here.

"The 100-year flood maps in the state of Alabama were not violated," said Stan Houston, a FEMA official based in Montgomery.

The agency's own data shows otherwise. According to a Press-Register review, about 40 percent of high-water marks surveyed by FEMA after Katrina exceeded the 100-year predictions or were outside the high-risk area.

Ruffer said FEMA flood maps for Alabama were the subject of a meeting last year with U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Mobile, and FEMA officials. According to Ruffer, FEMA representatives didn't see a need to revisit the Alabama maps.

"No one has shown that there is anything wrong with the maps as they were," Loar, acting director of mitigation for the southeast region of FEMA, said in an interview last fall. "We had an event in Alabama that was not off the scale."

The agency has since turned its attention to Alabama. "It's time for a restudy in coastal Alabama," Loar said in March.

Loar said he didn't need to view the Press-Register's data to believe that hurricane flooding had exceeded the 100-year level in recent years, which he attributed to mapping errors and the chance that some storms were worse than 100-year events.

Press-Register research indicates that at least two storms since 1969 have exceeded the 100-year flood level in Mobile County, and three in Baldwin County. Scientists say the repeated flooding casts doubt on the government's flood predictions.

Katrina caused the worst flooding in memory in the Dog River area and Bayou La Batre, and displaced hundreds of people in Mobile County, some of whom still live in FEMA trailers.

Estimates from Bayou La Batre and the city and county of Mobile indicate that the hurricane seriously damaged about 2,300 homes, many beyond repair. Those surveys strongly suggest that water, not wind, was the primary culprit. Mississippi's victims, of course, numbered in the tens of thousands.

Loar said funding for the new Alabama study would be available in October. Scientists have told the Press-Register that the work will almost certainly result in higher building elevations in Alabama.

The new Alabama maps won't be ready until 2010 at the earliest, according to Loar. Overhauling the maps is a long process, and local building officials say even minor revisions to flood maps have taken several years.

New maps: more of the same

In the meantime, FEMA will finalize its current round of revisions to the flood maps for Mobile and Baldwin counties. The revised maps don't include any changes to coastal flooding predictions.

Mobile County's maps now use more accurate land elevations to identify where the flood plain should lie. In some areas, such as the Dog River area and Hollinger's Island, the more accurate land elevation information has moved the flood plain boundary significantly, but often the change is barely discernible.

Baldwin County building officials expressed disappointment that the latest map revisions didn't address coastal flooding.

Howell, the Baldwin building inspector, said he was asked at the outset what areas should be studied, and he highlighted the entire coastline as well as Fish River, Styx River and Magnolia River.

Instead, the state Office of Water Resources, which supervised changes to both maps on behalf of FEMA, opted to study three inland waterways: D'Olive and Tiawasee creeks in Daphne and portions of Styx River near Loxley and Bay Minette.

Like FEMA, the state said it simply did not have enough funding to address coastal flooding. Larry Childers, spokesman for the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, said in a written statement that the agency understands coastal Alabama must be restudied, especially after Katrina, but inland areas also need attention.

Gulf Shores chief building official Brandan Franklin said he'd rather that the state had left the maps alone if the coast wasn't going to be included.

Noting the damage from Ivan, he said, "It's ridiculous that they would spend that kind of money—or any money—when we have so many problems and insurance claims in these areas after the storm."

Originally published on June 10, 2007 in the Mobile Press-Register. Courtesy of the Press-Register 2007 © All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.