Disaster: Fighting federal flood maps

ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – Wendy Young isn’t buying the idea that she needs to buy flood insurance for her home.

The wife and mother of two recently gazed out across a massive arroyo that borders her property at the west end of the village of Cerrillos.

“If this floods,” she said, “we’re not gonna need flood insurance. We’re gonna need an ark.”

Young and her husband, Todd Yocham, want to buy the home they’ve lived in for the past few years from her father, Frank Young. In order to do that, they need a mortgage. To get one, the Federal Emergency Management Agency says she’ll need to purchase flood insurance.

Perched on a lawn chair 25 to 30 feet above the bottom of the arroyo, Young said the floodplain designation FEMA slapped on her property doesn’t add up. That is, unless she’s adding up its cost at about $1,000 a year.

“If we’re gonna live here another 20 years, 30 years that’s 20, 30 thousand dollars,” she said. Young is fighting the FEMA map.

Every so often, FEMA redraws the boundaries of its floodplain maps. Every time that happens — 2012 most recently — homeowners and potential buyers can find themselves improperly drawn into a flood zone.

Flood Map
FEMA floodplain map including Wendy Youngs’ home on the west end of Main Street.

Wendy Young said that’s the case with her home.

Frank Young points to a map drawn up by Santa Fe County. It shows the floodplain boundary meandering along the arroyo, then suddenly jutting out to include the Youngs’ home on the west end of Main Street.

“And they’ve come, dipped over into this property only and put it right through the center of the house,” Frank Young said.

For that to be the case, flood waters would have to climb up the two- to three-story embankment at the edge of the property, then rise another two feet to actually enter the Youngs’ raised home. The FEMA boundaries seem to indicate the Youngs’ home would be the only one affected.

Mistaken Map

“You have to hire a surveyor or an engineer to come out and establish the elevation,” Frank Young said, referring to the family’s plan to get FEMA to correct the map.

“If we do end up hiring an engineer,” Wendy Young said, “it’s going to be $2,800 dollars. And we’re going to be doing the government’s job.”

A surveyor may be able to provide the information needed to get FEMA to issue what’s called a Letter of Map Change. But that would cost Young hundreds of dollars up front and she’ll never get credit on taxes or flood insurance premiums for the money she spent to fix the government’s error.

FEMA wouldn’t comment on Young’s case.

An email from an agency spokeswoman said FEMA used recent map data provided by Santa Fe County. Existing maps from prior FEMA revisions are also used to determine floodplain risk, as are aerial photographs. The resulting maps determine whether homeowners — with some exceptions — need to buy flood insurance and the premiums they’ll have to pay.

The one thing FEMA says it didn’t do was put a surveyor or engineer on the ground to check the work.

The ‘Hundred Year Flood’

FEMA’s flood designations are based on how likely a property is to be impacted by a flood that has a 1 percent chance of being equaled or exceeded in the same year. The rough, and technically inaccurate, term is the “hundred year flood.” Despite a cadre of industry engineers, surveyors and government officials who pushed for a more precise definition, the term stuck.

Cerrillos Arroyo
Cerrillos Arroyo

When New Mexicans think of such an event, many think to several days of downpour in September 2013.

During the deluge, Wendy Young’s friend took several pictures of the arroyo that, according to FEMA, poses a risk to her property.

“It was roaring,” Young said. “I’ll be honest about that. It was like we had riverfront property for a few hours. And it was beautiful. But it was way over there.”

Bridge at Cerrillos
Bridge at Cerrillos

While the west side of the arroyo churns like the rapids of the the Rio Grande near Taos, the east side — closest to Young’s property — rolls along at a relative snail’s pace.

Arroyo West of Cerrillos
Arroyo West of Cerrillos

What’s more, the photos show the livestock pen on the bottom of the arroyo next to Young’s property is unaffected by the storm. Young’s home sits on the bank at least 25 feet above any water.

Broad Problem

“We’re not the only people affected,” Young said. “The engineer that we spoke with, he’s done 80 of these.”

But while the problem grows, FEMA’s budget keeps shrinking.

“It seems to me that they’re working with inadequate material,” Young said. “And they’re just kind of making it up as they go. At least for our case anyway. I don’t know about everybody else”

News 13 found problems across New Mexico.

Dona Ana County has partnered with FEMA to make it easier for county engineers to document needed changes to flood maps.

In Bernalillo County, the base floodplain map dates back to 1983. While changes have been made over the years as homeowners, developers and municipalities request updates and exemptions, local floodplain experts say FEMA hasn’t done a county-wide revision in more than 30 years. All the while, mapping and modeling technology has improved flood prediction by leaps and bounds.

The federal flood insurance programs make up a well-meaning but imperfect system. It’s one that’s been pummeled by claims filed after disasters like Superstorm Sandy on the East Coast and Gulf Shore hurricanes.

While Congress rethinks how to fund the program and whether to remove subsidies for some flood insurance policies, homeowners like Wendy Young are left with a disaster all their own: fixing the government’s mistakes.

“I’m making phone calls all day long,” Young said as she turned to look at the arroyo. “Just to kind of stay out of trouble that I’m not in.”

See if you are in an ABQ flood zone:

Definitions of FEMA Flood Zones»
(Source: CABQ.gov)

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For more resources

Flood Administrators

  • Albuquerque – Rudy Rael, Floodplain Administrator, 505.924.3977
  • Bernalillo County – Public Works, 505.848.1500
  • Santa Fe City – RB Zaxus, Floodplain Administrator, 505.955.6641
  • Santa Fe County – Building and Development Services, 505.986.6225
  • Other metro area floodplain administrators
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