Hundreds of Branford properties that were always considered “dry ground” will soon be in the middle of a flood plain—- not because of projected rising seas, but because of new FEMA maps.
The updated FEMA flood plain maps will be effective July 8 in New Haven County, and will be phased in for other counties and states.
“The flood plain is creeping further inland,” said Town Engineer Janice Plaziak, who also serves as Branford’s flood plain manager. “Hundreds more properties will be included.”
Some Branford properties that will be impacted are undeveloped. The exact count of residential and commercial properties has not yet been calculated. Plaziak said the number will be significant in Branford because of the long coastline, the rivers and the wetlands. First Selectman Anthony “Unk” DaRos says in addition to residential and commercial properties, town officials have determined that at least 29 roads now become inundated at very high tides.
Branford residents can find the proposed new maps by going to the town website and clicking on the blue tab for FEMA Flood Insurance Maps on the left side of screen. There are links for the 2010 maps and for the preliminary DFIRM maps that will be effective July 8. Plaziak said she was informed by FEMA that the preliminary maps are basically the same as the final maps, which will be available later in the summer.
What happens if you find yourself in a newly-designated flood plain, or if the risk level has been elevated in your neighborhood?
Flood Insurance Rates Rising
• Residents in high risk flood zones will be required to purchase federal flood insurance if they have a mortgage or line of credit on their property. This will cost thousands of dollars per year.
• Property owners will be required to get a special permit before they begin any renovation or expansion projects.
“People who are in a flood plain are going to face changes, and some will need insurance,” Plaziak said. “If you don’t have a mortgage, then you don’t have to have flood insurance—but if you get flooded, then you’re out of luck.”
Residents who live in low or moderate risk flood plain areas may be eligible for a preferred risk policy at lower rates, but they are not typically required to purchase insurance even if they have a mortgage.
Rates for the National Flood Insurance Program are set by the government and do not vary from one insurance agent to another.
“It’s expensive to pay for flood insurance,” Plaziak said. “The higher the risk, the higher the rates will be.”
According to FEMA, flood insurance in low-to-moderate risk areas in Branford can range from an estimated $129 to $1,798 per year to insure both a residential building and its contents. Rates for high risk residential areas can range from an estimated $580 to $7,173 per year. Renters can choose to insure the contents only.
Those figures are only estimates, and the actual rates depend on a variety of factors, including risk, elevation and age of construction. Plaziak said one Branford family that has a newly constructed elevated home has an annual premium of $10,000 per year.
Compounding the situation, flood insurance rates will be going up as a result of the Flood Insurance Reform Act that Congress passed last year. Rates will increase for houses that are a not a primary residence, and for people whose homes have been repeatedly damaged by flooding.
Plaziak advises people to begin looking at the flood maps and to check their status with their mortgage lender and insurance agent.
“People’s requirements for insurance are based on these maps, so they’re very important,” she said. The maps show both A zones for stillwater flooding, and V zones for wave action flooding. There are also different categories in each of those zones that are listed on the legend for the maps.
Plaziak said V zones are those that can be impacted by 3-feet or higher waves during storms. “It’s an area that’s going to have waves crashing on you,” Plaziak said, adding that the V zones in Branford have expanded in the new maps.
In addition to insurance requirements, properties in 100-year flood plains are subject to more regulations when homeowners want to make improvements. Some of those regulatory agencies include the Branford Building Department, Inland Wetland Commission, Planning and Zoning, and the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).
There is a list of frequently asked questions regarding flood plains and permits on the Engineering Department’s link on Branford’s website.
“People need to understand the risk of flooding,” Plaziak said as she explained the term 100-year flood plain. “It’s not 1 in 100 years that you’re going to get flooded, it’s a 1 percent chance of flooding in any year.”
Those percentages may seem irrelevant after the storms that pounded Connecticut and surrounding states in the past two years. Residents are still recovering from Tropical Storm Irene and Super Storm Sandy. Plaziak said some Branford families who were displaced by Sandy are still not able to return to their homes because repairs haven’t been completed. She said the personal toll can be as devastating as the financial toll.
“It’s very stressful. It’s a huge impact to your life when you can’t live in your home until you can repair it, “Plaziak said.
It’s important to note that national flood insurance pays a maximum of $250,000 for a damage claim to a residential structure, and a maximum of $100,000 for contents. Other assistance may be available if the area is declared a disaster, as with Irene and Sandy.
Plaziak said the town’s Engineering Department does not make decisions regarding who needs flood insurance, but they can help answer questions.
“We have resources and documents that can help people,” she said. “We’re here to help, but we don’t make the insurance determination.”
How to be Flood Smart
FEMA creates flood plain maps, also known as Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs) for each community in a flood management program. The old paper maps have been replaced by digital maps or DFIRMs. The final maps for New Haven County will be available soon on the FEMA Flood Smart website, which contains vast amounts of information. There is a link that gives a quick one-step estimate of flood insurance rates when the user types in an address. Click here for the website.
Plaziak said FEMA changed the maps in 2010 when the agency made the move from paper to digital, but few new properties were added in Branford. That is not the case this time as widespread changes were made.
“FEMA wanted to do an across-the-board update,” Plaziak said. “They decided the maps were pretty old in terms of the data.”
She said the new maps are not projections based on rising seas, but are based on wave run-up analysis, historical data and other technical factors.
Some words of advice when trying to read the digital flood maps—read the directions carefully before using the FEMA map finder, and have patience while trying to interpret it.