FEMA revises Laurel flood maps

Some Laurel property owners may soon be required to purchase flood insurance as the Federal Emergency Management Agency has revised the city's flood insurance rate maps that will add 50 properties to the high-risk flood zone.

According to Dawn Hawkins-Nixon, acting associate director for the Sustainable Initiatives Division at the Maryland Department of Environment and coordinator of Prince George's County's National Flood Insurance Program, FEMA is working to update the nationwide flood maps to take into account erosion, weather events and land use, which began in 1989.

"In the case of P.G. County, the effective flood insurance rate maps date back to 1937," Hawkins-Nixon said. "They're not a true reflection of land use conditions today, which impacts the runoff we receive during storms. [The updates are] a great effort to make the maps more realistic, modern, current because we're working currently from information that's 30 years old almost."

Flooding is not a new issue in Laurel, and many point to the decision by Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission officials to open the flood gates at Duckett Dam as contributing when the Patuxent River overflowing its banks in Laurel.

City officials said they were considering a lawsuit against the WSSC following the flooding on May 1, 2014 caused by the WSSC's decision to relieve pressure on one of its dams during the storm the day before. In that flood, businesses near the Patuxent River, including the Fred Frederick car dealership, Aamco Transmission and Progressive Rent-a-Car suffered major losses, hundreds of families were evacuated from their homes, several roads were temporarily shut down and the city's Riverfront Park was left in ruins.

In early August, Laurel's director of emergency services, Martin Flemion, said damage from the spring flood cost the city between $250,000 and $350,000.

"We are currently working together on joint issues [and] matters in accordance with policies and regulations governing both parties," Flemion said in an email June 3. "Because of the nature of and the potential hazards from flooding, [the city of Laurel and WSSC] have been and will maintain coordination with each other in order to protect life and property."

Since the city of Laurel is incorporated and has its own land use authority, Hawkins-Nixon said, the city operates somewhat independently of Prince George's County when managing flood hazard areas, including a 100-year and 500-year floodplain.

According to the Digital Flood Insurance Rate Maps Outreach Program, the 100-year flood is an estimated level of floodwater to be equaled or exceeded every 100 years on average or a 1 percent chance of being equaled or exceeded in a single year, while the 500-year flood has a 0.2 percent chance of occurring in a given year.

Flemion said the requirement for flood insurance depends on the property owner's location and mortgage loans.

"Primarily, if you have a mortgage on your residence or business, and your residence or business ends up in the 100-year-flood, you may be required by your mortgage holder to purchase the insurance," Flemion said. "It used to be that if you did not have a mortgage, you were not required to get the insurance. In my tenure as an emergency manager, I've seen a lot of properties damaged by floods."

Having lived along A Street in a white clapboard row house most of her life, Debbie Foulks said the city's flooding never comes as a surprise.

"All these houses, I believe, were built in 1910," Foulks said, referring to the line of row houses that are up a hill from Riverfront Park. "I know Laurel like the back of my hand. Back in the '70s, when Hurricane Agnes hit, I remember Fred Frederick dealership's cars floating down the road. I just remember barely seeing the top of the cars."

Although the waters of the Patuxent River have never reached her doorstep, Foulks said purchasing flood insurance was a no-brainer.

"I've always had flood insurance," she said. "I have renter's insurance, all that stuff. That's kind of mandatory. … It's so cheap. I know everybody can't afford it, but it's good to have. I definitely recommend it."

Flemion agreed.

"The power of swift-moving water is unbelievable," he said. "You see disaster photos that were taken by helicopters and you see the water moving, but the power of that water is mind boggling. I've seen floods where the house has been moved on the foundation. Swift-moving water is nothing to mess with."

With FEMA's completion of the flood map revisions, Flemion said property owners can go to the Maryland Department of the Environment's outreach website mdfloodmaps.com to see if their home or business is in the high flood risk zone. The interactive website also provides the necessary steps to purchase flood coverage.

FEMA will also hold a flood risk open house on June 10 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Prince George's County Department of the Environment in Largo, where property owners can review the updated maps and learn more about their insurance options.

Flemion said he would rather have residents be safe than sorry.

"To stand there and look at a hole in the ground where your house used to be and know that you don't have flood insurance, that's not a feeling I would wish on anybody," Flemion said. "The ones that are going to be impacted, whether they're required or not, I would urge them to acquire the insurance."

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