All of the floodplain maps in Winona County are being overhauled this year and the new maps may include a higher 100-year flood level. Depending on the results, the overhaul may affect people like Winona Planning Commissioner Dale Boettcher.
The 2007 flood remains a painful reminder of how destructive flash floods can be. Within the year, state officials will unveil overhauled floodplain maps for Winona County. New information on how often heavy rainfall occurs may raise the floodplain level.
Boettcher is "paying through the nose" for flood insurance. His annual costs increased from around $1,800 to over $3,200 last year, he said. With a $5,000 deductible and strict rules, he described it as an undesirable policy. "I wouldn't wish flood insurance on anyone," agreed Winona City Engineer Brian DeFrang, acknowledging that such steep increases can force owners to make hard decisions. Boettcher is one of many area residents required to buy flood insurance; mortgage lenders usually require it for homes within floodplains. The floodplain is just a line drawn on paper — a streak that shows how much local waters could swell in a theoretical once-in-a-century flood — but in a landscape with many properties near flash flood-prone creeks or within the reach of the mighty Mississippi itself, a lot depends on whether your home falls within or outside of the line.
A preliminary new map will be released this year, state officials announced last week. Whether that is good or bad news for individual home owners may vary case by case. Current floodplain maps use 1960s era data on how often areas receive heavy rainfall. In the 50 years of precipitation data since then, "the amount of precipitation has gone up," DNR State Floodplain Manager Ceil Strauss said. The new maps will include the new precipitation data. While Strauss said she could not say whether the new data meant that flood levels would be rising across the board, she acknowledged that it may translate to increased flood risk.
That might be bad news for homeowners near floodplains, Strauss agreed. However, for other homeowners, the updates may officially remove them from the floodplain, she said. The new map will be far more accurate than the nearly 30-year-old maps currently used. The original maps are brittle from age and round the elevations up or down based on 10-foot intervals or contours. The new maps will feature two-foot contours. That means "we can draw more accurately where those elevations are," said Strauss. In effect, it is like having an image with more pixels. Previously, "if the flood elevation was 995 [feet above sea level] they were trying to draw between the 990-foot and the 1000-foot contour," she explained.
The new maps will also offer up-to-date information on where streams are currently located. The paths of many area streams changed significantly after the 2007 flood. "Garvin Brook moved a couple hundred feet in places," explained DNR Floodplain Mapping Hydrologist Suzanne Juwani. "Maybe some of the places where [the stream] used to be are less at risk, and definitely the places where the creek now is in the stream bed, those are more at risk."
During a Winona Planning Commission meeting last month, Boettcher expressed his strong desire to see updated floodplain maps completed. He hopes they will take into account flood mitigation efforts in the area of his home, Pleasant Valley and Burns Valley. However, city officials have indicated that at least some of the flood mitigation measures in that area are not up to FEMA design standards and would not be considered in a new floodplain map.
"They don't treat them as certified now," DeFrang said of some of the flood mitigation measures, including non-certified dikes and holding ponds. The new maps are "not going to change a thing" in that regard, he said.
DeFrang still expressed optimism that the updates might provide relief for some homeowners in that area of Winona. "Gosh, I hope so. I really do," he said.
When the new preliminary floodplain maps are released, affected property owners will have an appeal period to contest the changes. However, it is not as simple as saying you do not like the floodplain map. Homeowners who wish to contest the map must provide professional studies that prove they are not within the floodplain. Such studies can be quite costly, and conducting a study does not guarantee the results will be positive.
At any time, property owners within the floodplain can apply for a floodplain map amendment to certify that their homes are, in fact, not in the floodplain. The drastic increases in flood insurance premiums that Boettcher experienced — and he is not alone — are likely due to the recent implementation of the Biggert Waters Act, a 2012 federal law that cut subsidies for flood insurance in an effort to bolster FEMA's hurricane-ravaged solvency. According to new national reports, the U.S. Congress may put those subsidy cuts on hold following outrage from floodplain dwelling voters. Keep reading the Winona Post for more on these changes.