FEMA Tells Parish It Can Drop Floodways From New Maps

The new figures have lowered flood risk for 1,200 properties, but the maps also came with new floodways, a first in Ascension Parish, that have caught some home and business owners off guard.

by David J Mitchell, The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. / April 3, 2019
In this photo provided by the Hattiesburg Police Department, drivers attempt to drive through flash flood waters in Hattiesburg, Miss., Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018. A storm system dumped up to 12 inches of rain in Louisiana and Mississippi, Thursday afternoon through early Friday morning. AP

(TNS) — FEMA has informed Ascension Parish government and area congressional officials that new flood insurance rate maps can proceed without controversial development restrictions along area waterways, a parish council member says.

Parish Councilman Bill Dawson wrote to the mayor of Sorrento on Friday that Federal Emergency Management Agency officials told him and others during a recent meeting that the restrictions, known as floodways, could be removed from the new maps expected to take effect May 15.

"They also told us since the request had come from the Town of Sorrento, The City of Gonzales and the Parish of Ascension, all would have to request the removal of the Floodways request," Dawson wrote in an email shared with Town Council members Tuesday evening.

Dawson has been a primary proponent of the map changes as a way to lower flood insurance rates for residents south of Gonzales and in Sorrento and the Burnside area.

Arising from a parish-funded analysis several years in the making, the new maps set up revised base flood elevations across a swath of the parish. The elevations are important for assessing flood risk. The new figures have lowered flood risk for 1,200 properties, but the maps also came with new floodways, a first in Ascension, that have caught some home and business owners off guard.

At the urging of Mayor Mike Lambert, the Town Council agreed Tuesday to take the first procedural step to rescind the recently approved ordinance that had adopted the new flood map with floodways delineated.

"We need to go ahead and get y'all's OK to go ahead and rescind that part of ordinance, taking out the floodways," Lambert told the council.

A final vote will happen at a future meeting.

The floodways mark the primary flow path of water in a stream or bayou during a 100-year flood and set forth highly restricted areas for new construction. The restrictions, which generally track waterways, are aimed at preventing new obstructions that could cause water to rise higher than normal in a 100-year flood.

Residents in the Hodgeson Road area south of Gonzales and near Bayou Conway say they didn't find out their properties were in the floodways and faced the new restrictions until just before or right after the March 6 deadline to appeal them to FEMA.

FEMA officials in Washington, D.C., were not immediately able to respond to a request for comment Tuesday about the status of the flood map process.

As the impact of the floodways came into a clearer view last month, Dawson and others in parish government deferred adoption of their ordinance that would have triggered maps with the floodways so the parish could ask FEMA to extend the appeal period.

But Dawson's email to Lambert says FEMA officials indicated to him; representatives of Sens. Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy, R-La., and Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge; state floodplain officials; and others that the appeals wouldn't be necessary at this time.

"FEMA replied that we COULD just institute the modified BFE's and not institute the Regulated Floodways," Dawson wrote.

Dawson wrote in his email that HNTB, the parish's engineering contractor on the map project, had previously told parish officials the floodways would be required for the new maps.

Dawson's advice to Sorrento represents an about-face for the parish government, which had previously urged the town and the city of Gonzales to adopt the new regulations to ensure flood insurance reductions could take effect.

"They sent people here to explain all this to us, and spent a lot of time explaining it, but nobody's here to 'unexplain' it. We're on our own," Sorrento Councilman Robert Debate said of the parish shortly before the council vote. "How do I know I can trust what they are saying?"

Lambert didn't disagree but said the city of Gonzales has to do the same thing.

Lambert also read out-loud a letter he is sending to FEMA, Cassidy, Kennedy and Graves, asking to withdraw the previous map change with the floodways, to resubmit maps with only new base flood elevations and to set a new schedule to implement the changes.

The base flood elevations mark the projected height of a 100-year flood, the benchmark flood that FEMA uses to determine what properties are most at risk of flooding. A 100-year flood has a 1 percent chance of happening in any given year.

The parish studied the Boyle Bayou, Bayou Conway and Panama Canal watersheds, which included areas that lacked base flood elevations, meaning homeowners with mortgages were required to buy flood insurance whether they needed to or not.

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