The trade-off for federal money to buy out flooded homes could be stalled reconstruction efforts and a hodgepodge of vacant lots throughout the valley, the Minot City Council learned Monday.
City finance director Cindy Hemphill gave the council its first look at a plan for an "advisory base flood elevation," which will be the topic of a special city council meeting Dec. 18 at noon in City Hall.
Currently, the federal government considers Minot's flood plain to be the Souris River channel, which means residents are still technically outside of a flood zone despite the disaster of 2011. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has not drawn new flood maps to reflect any change from the 100-year protection provided by dikes built in the 1970s. The dikes and other controls protect the city to a river flow of 5,000 cubic feet per second. The process of creating new maps and a new flood plain could take three years or more.
In the meantime, the city has been stymied in trying to get federal hazard mitigation grants money that can be used to make improvements to prevent another catastrophe. No matter how it's calculated, Minot's mitigation projects don't provide a benefit that FEMA says warrants the cost.
The city would like FEMA to adopt an "advisory base flood elevation" of 9,600 cubic feet per second to establish a new flood plain while the new flood map is being drafted. The altered flood plain would allow hazard mitigation money to be used to buy homes in the valley.
Those homes could not be in the footprint of a proposed flood protection plan because nothing, including dikes and other flood-control structures, can be built on land purchased with hazard mitigation dollars. To be eligible for hazard mitigation money, home buyouts would have to occur outside the footprint and have documentation of at least 50 percent damage from the 2011 flood. The city is looking at around 350 homes eligible for a voluntary acquisition.
Flood elevation map to go online
The City of Minot expects to post the proposed "advisory flood base elevation" map on its website soon.
The map shows how the change in the flood plain from 5,000 cubic feet per second of river flow to 9,600 cubic feet per second changes the area considered to be in a flood zone. Currently, the federal government considers the flood zone to be confined to the river channel because of the flood control measures taken years ago to provide 100-year protection.
The elevations map shown to city council members Monday identified a flood plain not quite as large as the area flooded in 2011. The map also identifies areas where houses would be eligible for buyout using federal hazard mitigation dollars.
An advisory base flood elevation has drawbacks, though, that give council members pause. If new flood elevations are adopted, the city must put in place strict requirements that any construction in the valley put the lowest floor opening at least a foot above the new flood elevation. That could mean that homeowners who haven't begun construction would face construction standards that require them to raise a house's lowest floor as much as seven to eight feet.
The council determined that in most cases, reconstruction would become cost prohibitive if not just down right odd, since neighbors who already built or are building wouldn't have to meet the same standard.
"That's very concerning to us," Mayor Curt Zimbelman said. "You can imagine in some of these areas what it would look like if it would make even any financial sense to people."
Hemphill said FEMA could adopt the advisory flood plain in six weeks if the city requests it. For residents, that could mean new building standards in place by Feb. 1, she said.
Council members voiced concern that the new building standards would end new reconstruction, leaving abandoned lots scattered throughout the flood zone.
It leaves the council stuck between a rock and hard place as it faces making a decision on whether to ask FEMA to adopt the advisory elevations.
Council member Blake Krabseth said the federal regulations that are disqualifying Minot from hazard mitigation money are now forcing the city into a difficult position.
"It's ridiculous. The only reason we are looking at this is because of funding. It's not because if makes common sense," he said. "It's too bad the federal government doesn't just write us a check and let us fix our own problems."
Adoption of the advisory flood base would make flood insurance required for more homeowners. It would not affect rates, although premiums are expected to increase once FEMA completes final flood maps.
There is no guarantee that FEMA will adopt the advisory elevations, although city staff indicated that officials are open to the idea. The government has agreed to advisory elevations once before, following Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast.