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A Times Editorial

Accept FEMA's flood assessments

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 1999


Considerable money has been spent trying to convince federal officials that residents along Pinellas' coast should not have to pay more to protect homes and businesses from natural disasters. It is time for the beach cities and county government to come to terms with the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood risk assessments and drop any plans to appeal.

FEMA released a new set of guidelines in September 1997 that makes rebuilding after a storm tougher. It redrew maps to include more property in dangerous zones and predicted floodwaters could rise higher than previously figured. These changes meant the cost of flood insurance and rebuilding a damaged structure likely would increase.

Last year the coastal cities began a campaign to override FEMA's assessments. Pinellas County joined in, paying $850,000 for a new map drawn by an airborne laser that produced a picture full of errors and not up to federal standards.

FEMA was accused of using outdated computer models that incorrectly figured flood levels. The agency disagreed and hired an engineering firm to double-check the model that measures how waves wash ashore in a storm. FEMA's assessment expands the velocity zones along the coast, which are the most vulnerable areas. It is here that waves would be so powerful they would slam into structures.

FEMA delayed issuing new maps while the protesters gathered information to prove the agency wrong. But it said the county had failed to prove that FEMA's methods were flawed, just that the assessments could have been done in other ways.

It is shortsighted for Pinellas County and the beach cities to worry about higher flood insurance premiums and increased costs of coastal construction. They should be thinking about safety.

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