The new federal maps help set flood insurance rates and determine which homeowners need the insurance.
By AMY WIMMER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 20, 2002
Long-awaited federal flood maps, which identify Pinellas County's most flood-prone areas and affect flood insurance rates and coastal building guidelines, were released this week.
If approved, the maps will be the first update to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Pinellas flood maps in two decades. The agency hopes the maps are more accurate -- and better received -- than the last proposed maps, released in 1997 but held up by appeals while the county and FEMA wrangled over technology used to develop them.
The maps, which began arriving in town and city hall mailboxes Wednesday, help determine how coastal areas, plus river and lakefront properties, are developed in Pinellas. They are used to set flood insurance rates and determine which homeowners need flood insurance. They outline which homes are in a "V" zone, or mandatory flood insurance area, and dictate how high a home's base level must be built.
Generally, municipal officials examining the maps say more people will need flood insurance and coastal homes will need to be built higher than in the current maps, adopted in 1983. But the new guidelines aren't as drastic as the revisions developed in 1997 -- the ones the county spent five years and an estimated $1.5-million fighting.
"When we looked at the maps, there was a concern that old technology and information was being used," Assistant County Administrator Jake Stowers said. "The aerials were from the '70s. We said, "How can we make this better?' "
The county paid for high-tech Light Imaging Detection and Ranging, which involved using lasers to measure Pinellas topography from an airplane. The county also hired University of Florida coastal engineering professor Y. Peter Sheng, who developed what he believes is a better model to measure how a 100-year storm would affect different areas of Pinellas.
The laser technology proved useful, giving FEMA more accurate information to work with when developing the flood maps. But FEMA remains unconvinced that Sheng's technology is better than what the agency now uses, an update of the technology it used to draw the county's flood map 20 years ago.
Stowers said the county will likely accept the updated maps, with the understanding that if FEMA adopts Sheng's or another new technology within the next few years, it will revise Pinellas maps to reflect the new technology.
FEMA officials could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Harry Glenn, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, touted the Pinellas project as ground-breaking for FEMA, which knew it was using outdated mapping techniques but didn't have the money to fix the problem.
"This turned out to be sort of a pilot project with FEMA," Glenn said. "They had been wrestling for years with how to fix it, and they've used this as a model for how to do it. Why not do a partnership with the communities, and make sure that we get the best data?"
The new maps' long-awaited arrival has left local planners poring over them, trying to interpret how their communities fared.
Reaction in the affected areas was mixed: In Treasure Island, Mayor Leon Atkinson said he is "comfortable that we have gotten FEMA's attention" and is basically pleased with the revisions.
"There's more people affected," Paul Williams, director of community services for Gulfport, said of his city. "And they are going to have to pay higher rates."