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Flood Insurance and Mitigation Save Taxpayer Dollars for Tidewater and Poquoson

MULTIPLE COUNTIES, VA - The southeastern areas of the Commonwealth of Virginia suffered extensive flooding of up to 18 inches of rain from severe storms associated with Tropical Depression Ida and a Nor’easter. The damaging effects of the storm began on November 11, 2009. The Governor requested a major presidential declaration for Public Assistance for five counties and seven cities; on December 9, the President declared a major disaster for the affected communities.

The Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) reported that “although there were significant impacts on individuals and businesses as a result of the storm, the Preliminary Damage Assessment (PDA) process determined that there was a very high level of insurance in the areas affected, which would preclude the need for an Individual Assistance declaration.”

It was determined that approximately 80 percent of the damage was covered by flood insurance. This spared taxpayers the expense of additional Federal disaster assistance through FEMAs Individual Assistance program. The large number of flood insurance policies in force is very important, for according to the Virginia Department of Conservation & Recreation (DCR), Floodplain Management Division, “Damage from flooding since the 1950s indicates that Virginia experiences more than $400 million in damages each decade.”

Matthew Wall, Hazard Mitigation Program Manager for VDEM, states, “Homeowners were aware of the hazard, what it can do, and have taken the appropriate steps of acquiring and maintaining flood insurance.”

In the Tidewater, Hampton Roads areas of southeastern Virginia, which were damaged by the November 2009 severe weather, there has been an average increase of approximately 45 percent in the number of flood insurance policies in force between Hurricane Isabel (2003) to Tropical Depression Ida and the Nor’easter in 2009. This increase reflects the ultimate goal of hazard mitigation: A flood occurred, private property was damaged, and taxpayer dollars were not needed to support their recovery efforts because the property was adequately insured.

Another important factor was incorporating freeboard requirements into a community’s regulations. Freeboard is an additional amount of height above the Base Flood Elevation (the elevation of 100-year flood event that has a one-percent-annual-chance of occurring in any given year). It is used as a factor of safety (e.g., two feet above the base flood) in determining the level at which a structure’s lowest floor must be elevated or floodproofed to be in accordance with the Commonwealth or community floodplain management regulations. Freeboard reduces flood damage and results in significantly lower flood insurance rates due to lower flood risk.

Alison Meehan, Floodplain Program Planner for the Virginia DCR, said, “The requirement by most of the affected communities to include freeboard into their floodplain ordinance as a factor of safety is responsible floodplain management and, therefore, an important ingredient in reducing the damage caused by this November flooding."

Freeboard is not required by National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) standards, but communities are encouraged to adopt at least a one-foot freeboard to account for the one-foot rise built into the concept of designating a floodway, the encroachment requirements where floodways have not been designated, and other uncertainties in predicting 100-year flood event levels. Studies show that the additional costs of adding freeboard at the time of construction are small, and return benefits in excess of the costs.

Other homeowners who suffered damage during the November 2009 storms did not have flood insurance. They had not purchased it because their property was not located in the floodplain and they did not believe that their property was vulnerable to flooding. FEMA statistics reveal, however, that approximately 25 percent of all flood insurance claims come from areas with low-to-moderate flood risk. This figure represents a large number of homes that are not required to carry flood insurance, but where there is still a risk of flood damage.

Various hazard mitigation projects enacted also precluded the need for FEMA Individual Assistance and lessened the disaster impact on people and property in the Commonwealth. These projects involve elevation of floodprone structures, acquisition of real property, and the development of better storm water drainage. These were all funded through several different Federal, Commonwealth, community, and private resources.

In the southeast area of Virginia, FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP), Flood Mitigation Assistance Program (FMA), and the Repetitive Flood Claims (RFC) Programs have funded over 150 home elevation projects and over 120 property acquisition projects. An additional 100 elevation and acquisition projects have been funded and/or partially completed. Program funding and guidelines vary by program. For details visit www.fema.gov/government/grant/hma/index.shtm. FEMA provides the majority of funding and partners with the Commonwealth, communities, and the voluntary participation of the homeowners.

Much of the Tidewater, Virginia area is flat and borders the Chesapeake Bay, numerous rivers, inlets, marshes, and creeks as well as located in the floodplain. It is important to maintain the viability of these communities as well as providing protection from the flooding. Elevating floodprone properties that have suffered repetitive damage is the mitigation priority for most communities.

For the City of Poquoson and James City County, part of the affected areas, both have a history of flooding which presents the greatest hazard threat for both.

The name “Poquoson” has been translated from Native American language as “flat land” or “great marsh.” Consequently, 90% of Poquoson lies within the 100-year floodplain. In this city there have been more than a total of 300 homes elevated in the last 10 years. Of that total, 29 homes were elevated using HMGP funding and over 20 using Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money. The remaining more than 250 homes were elevated through the Small Business Administration (SBA) Mitigation loans, NFIP Increased Cost of Compliance (ICC) funds, or private funding and charitable groups. This reflects the self-initiative of homeowners to mitigate the damage from floodwaters.

The Chickahominy Haven neighborhood of 192 homes is James City County’s highest priority for elevating the most severely damaged and repetitively flooded structures. Many of these homes were built as vacation homes, but most are now occupied by permanent residents. The Peninsula Multi-Jurisdictional Natural Hazards Mitigation Plan states, “The floodplain of the Chickahominy River is wide, and relocating properties on the same parcel and out of the floodplain is rarely possible. Acquisition of home sites in this area was not desirable from the county’s perspective due to maintenance requirements.” Elevation was also the desirable mitigation approach as expressed by the neighborhood association and homeowners so they could remain in and sustain their community.

So far there have been 17 homes elevated in this project area. Of this total, eight have used CDBG funds, four used HMGP, two used SBA loans, and three used private money and/or loans. Some homeowners who had prior damage and wanted to participate in an elevation project did not qualify; they failed to file a claim when they had previous flood damage. Keith Denny, Housing Project Coordinator for James City County, said, “Homeowners need to document their flood losses to improve their chances of qualifying for elevation projects.” James City County’s Office of Housing and Community Development continue to target homes for possible elevation.

Once the initial investment into an elevation project is made, the benefits extend for the long term. There is increased protection during flood events, which lower the damage costs for both the community and the property owner, with reduced flood insurance premiums for community policyholders.

Meehan put it very succinctly when she stated, “Do I think we are 100 percent there? No. But I think we are making significant progress in Virginia.”

Last updated June 3, 2020