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Startup Residents Challenge FEMA Over New Flood Maps

Hansi Lo Wang


Scott Lange wanted to get away from city life after his retirement. So back in 2005, he bought a home in the small town of Startup. Startup's in Snohomish County, just east of Monroe. The Skykomish River runs right by Startup, and it floods almost every winter.

Lange wanted to make sure his new home would stay dry, so he checked not once, not twice —

Lange: "I triple checked to make sure that my property was not in a floodplain when I purchased it. And we get a little innocuous notice in the mail saying, Gee, we're having a meeting in Monroe and your flood status may have changed. FEMA has decided to put you on a floodplain. And it's like, Wow, that's quite a surprise!"

FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has been going around the country drawing up new maps of areas at risk of flooding. Last year, the agency released a draft map. It shows that if the Skykomish River floods, some residents in Startup could see four feet of water in their homes.

Lange: "Now I could see maybe six inches of water, maybe a foot. But for four feet in my living room, picturing my sofa and my TV bouncing around, floating in the water, it just didn't make sense to me. And that was where I thought, Well, you know, with all due respect to these brilliant people, the best people the government has working on this, somebody made a mistake somewhere."

FEMA says it wasn't a mistake. The federal agency says there are communities around the country that have been overlooked in past flood maps. And FEMA hopes their new mapping methods will create more accurate maps that would alert people living next to poorly maintained dikes and levees that there is a risk of flooding.

Scott Lange says Startup does have a certified flood control system for this part of the Skykomish. And it sounds like this:

Sound: (Horn of train passing by Startup)

Lange says a raised railroad embankment about ten–feet–high keeps flood waters from reaching him and his neighbors.

Lange: "We love the railroad!"

Renette Villella: "We do!"

Lange: "Especially since they keep us from being flooded."

Villella: "That's right!"

Lange: "We love Burlington Northern. We want to make sure you know that."

Villella: "Yes!"

That woman you heard is Scott Lange's neighbor, Renette Villella. She and Lange live just a few minutes away from the railroad.

The three of us walk next to the tracks, on top of the nearby levee until we're standing on the banks of the Skykomish River.

Wang: "So this is the river that could possibly flood. This is where we're at."

Villella: "Mm–hmm. The Skykomish."

Wang: "What would it look like compared to now? You wouldn't see those rocks over there or across the river?"

Lange: "You'd see trees sticking out of the water. That whole area would be, this whole valley would be inundated with water."

So would nearby homes and fields. But Lange and Villella say the elevated railroad tracks have kept their homes — on the other side — safe.

FEMA officials say the railroad may have provided flood protection so far, but they're concerned it may not be reliable in the future. That's why the agency put Lange and Villella's homes in the floodplain.

It means property values in Startup could fall. Also, Villella and other neighbors with federally–backed mortgages would have to buy flood insurance.

Wang: "So right now, you don't have flood insurance?"

Villella: "No, I just simply, I never found it necessary. I never had an insurance agent, No, I want to insure this. We need to add it on here. It's just historically, not have been an issue here."

This surrounding area at the foothills of the Cascades does have a long history of flooding. Someone who knows quite a bit about that is Bob Freitag. He used to work for FEMA and now teaches at the University of Washington.

Freitag: "The fact that an area hasn't flooded is some indication that it might not flood again, but it's also an indication that they may just have been lucky."

We meet in his Seattle houseboat, where he's searching through a cramped corner of papers and books.

Freitag: "And it's somewhere here, and I will find it. Ah! Here we go. Here's the book. It's called 'Floodplain Management: A New Approach for a New Era.'"

Wang: "You wrote a book?"

Freitag: "Uh, yeah. Three of us at the university wrote a book on flooding, saying flooding is much more natural than what we thought. We as a country, and really as a people, were kind of arrogant, thinking that we can, you know, control water, and we put levees up, and we expect them to hold."

Freitag says federal flood maps have always been inaccurate because they're based on data from past floods. He's worried that future flooding in our region may become less predictable.

Freitag: "What communities are going to have to do is figure out, if they depend on this levee system to contain those flows, it's going to be harder. The water is going to be at flood level longer. It's going to be at flood level more often, which means those levees are just going to be beaten up continually."

Startup is not alone in its fight against FEMA's new flood maps. Around the country, other communities are also filing appeals to change their flood status.

FEMA has also received pressure from lawmakers in Congress to reconsider places like Startup where FEMA initially ignored existing flood barriers. The agency recently said it will consider appeals from citizens before making a final decision.

For KUOW News, I'm Hansi Lo Wang.

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