Port city pushes back against Washington's tightening flood insurance definitions

PORTLAND, Maine -- The ocean is slowly rising to meet this city's wooden lobster wharfs. As area seas lick up the old log pilings, warming waters invite hurricanes and new predatory fish into the nation's northern gulf.

But these are relatively distant threats when compared with a storm brewing in Washington, D.C., where federal experts are redrawing the nation's flood maps that define insurance coverage eligibility. It's the political climate that's causing city and state officials to hunker down in opposition.

Here, for example, more accurate federal flood insurance maps for the city's harbor would shift the city's stretch of piers into a new classification that could experience higher waves and more damage. That would end the city's ambitious pier-top development plans and threaten the fishing fleet, officials worry.

The shift means that construction of new buildings would be effectively prohibited on the sturdy plank piers, which lobstermen have shared for years with restaurants, office space, even some condominiums.

Existing structures would also face a grim future. They could be rebuilt to half of their current value if a hurricane rakes them into the ocean. That concerns city officials, who worry the wharfs could slip into disrepair if pier owners see little economic reason to maintain them, prompting memories of a dark period of harbor dilapidation in the 1970s.

"We think this designation is extreme. It goes too far," said Penny St. Louis Littell, director of the city's planning department. "Our harbor has not had that kind of damage."

Many communities are facing economic development challenges as the Federal Emergency Management Agency uses new technologies and sharpened science to update floodplain maps. Plane-mounted lasers are capturing the terrain below with much more precision, and updated computer models account for rising risk of floods associated with stronger hurricanes.

Wave velocity can be inconvenient


Often, the result is a larger floodplain. More homes and business are considered vulnerable. That can complicate development projects -- or prohibit them entirely. That move is generally applauded by environmental groups, which believe the federal government has encouraged construction along coastlines vulnerable to climate change through overly cheap public insurance programs.

FEMA, for its part, is following orders from Congress. The remapping is meant to save lives, prevent damage and reduce the National Flood Insurance Program's huge exposure to loss.

The proposed maps for Portland would designate the harbor a "V Zone," where winds and waves can act in tandem to tear a building down. The piers currently fall within the relatively lenient "A Zone," which requires new buildings to be slightly raised.

"We follow the science," said one FEMA official involved in the process. "And the science doesn't always take us to places that are convenient."

The sea near Portland has risen about 8 inches since 1912. Greenhouse gas emissions appear to be hastening that rate. Ocean temperatures are warming more quickly than in the past, having risen about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970. Water expands as a result, and the "rate of sea-level rise has accelerated in recent decades," according to a study released this year by the University of Maine.

"V Zone" is short for velocity zone, one of the most dangerous areas identified by FEMA. Wind-driven waves are apt to rise 3 feet before smashing into structures. The result is bleak.

"The forces involved in V Zone flooding would topple almost any building or do substantial structural damage," said David Conrad, an expert on the flood insurance program with the National Wildlife Federation. "That's why it's critical to locate where those areas are."

Mansions in the dunes? Not at this port

In this case, though, Portland was misidentified, officials and residents insist.

"Our company is over 200 years old, and there's no documented history [of 3-foot waves causing damage]," said Charlie Poole, whose family owns the Union Wharf, a sprawling concrete pier where a shirtless man brushed weeds from wire lobster traps recently. "We're trying to have FEMA understand."

St. Louis Littell, the city's planner, says the agency is treating Portland as if it's a coastal plain, not a fishing port in a sheltered harbor. City and state officials are pressing FEMA to abandon the proposed map and do more research, such as placing a tidal gauge in the harbor for a year.

"Portland Harbor is not your mansions in the sand dunes. It's an economic engine," St. Louis Littell said. "Can I say that a catastrophic storm won't come into Portland Harbor? No. But I can say it hasn't happened in the last 100 years."

The city has a powerful bodyguard backing its opposition. Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, which oversees FEMA, wrote a letter last month to the agency's administrator, Craig Fugate, to reaffirm the city's position that the map is "inaccurate."

Collins also said that FEMA's policy requiring cities to pay for an engineering study to rebut the government's findings is "troubling." "It should not be Portland's responsibility to shoulder the financial burdens of correcting FEMA's mistakes," she wrote.

A Senate aide said the office is arranging a series of meetings between city and FEMA officials to bridge the impasse. The agency recently delayed a 90-day public comment period on the proposed map after it failed to properly advertise the period.

Fixing one threat and creating another

FEMA emphasizes its use of science to reach its conclusions. The agency could face criticism if it shifts its position under political pressure, though observers think that's unlikely to occur.

"There are often disputes over maps, but the way those get worked out is in formal proceedings," said Conrad of the National Wildlife Federation. "If mapping just became political, that would lead to the total breakdown of the hazard identification system -- something that should be avoided at all costs."

Yet as the government responds to emerging natural hazards, it has the potential effect of causing a different type of trauma: one that's man-made.

If Portland is designated a V Zone, the fishing fleet there could suffer. Private pier owners have taken advantage of the city's multiple-use zoning rules to build commercial buildings over the water. That revenue allows them to charge lower rents to lobstermen, who use the piers to tie up their boats, store piles of traps and sell the crustaceans.

City officials worry that the fishing industry could become trapped in a whirlpool of costs.

That's what David MacVane, 75, whose family has fished these waters for decades, has tried to avoid. He was fixing old traps one day recently instead of buying new ones, bending U-nails around the sea-scarred frame to seize the wire sides in place. Bait is placed in the trap's "kitchen," and the lobster becomes caught in its "parlor" as it tries to leave.

White-haired and quick-tongued, the tanned fisherman quipped that many on these piers are late in paying their bills. Then again, the federal government is none too quick in doing its thing, either, he said.

"We'll be gone before that happens," MacVane said of FEMA applying the new maps.

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