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FEMA Relents Under Deluge Of Protests

FEMA Maps
Top: On a version of Oxnard's flood map dated April 2009, yellow indicates a high-risk area (blue shows the Santa Clara riverbed), but flood depths are left off. Above: A map showing the same area dated August 2009, after the final community meeting. Here, only the blue areas are high-risk, and the red lines indicate flood depths.

Some Ventura County homeowners can breathe a bit easier now that they are no longer being required to buy flood insurance.

Two weeks after SoCal Connected's investigation, FEMA said it would postpone a flood insurance requirement for certain areas of Oxnard and Fillmore.

"FEMA has basically given us everything we would have gotten had we gone to federal court," Richard Tentler, an attorney representing homeowners via the Flood Zone Justice Association, said in a telephone interview.

A map revision the federal agency unveiled in July prompted a public outcry, since it would have required some residents to pay for flood insurance without giving them the information they say they need to appeal their cases. In addition, homeowners claimed, the federal agency had not allowed enough time for public comment.

The matter became further complicated when FEMA released a different map to SoCal Connected. It showed a high-risk area about 40 percent smaller than the one revealed to the public, and provided the missing information homeowners and local officials said they needed.

That map and SoCal Connected's coverage of the issue helped provide the leverage needed to win a reprieve from FEMA, Tentler said.

Last week, FEMA told officials from Ventura County, the City of Oxnard and the City of Fillmore they would remove the areas in question from their official maps until a thorough study of the Santa Clara River Watershed has been completed.

FEMA publishes digital flood insurance rate maps that show what properties are at risk of flooding. If a property lies in a high-risk zone—which means there is a one-percent chance of flooding each year—then its owner is required by law to purchase flood insurance.

The map in dispute had marked as high risk a wide swath of homes along the Santa Clara River in Oxnard but did not show the expected flood depth. Insurance companies consider that depth when calculating their rates, so by excluding it FEMA would ultimately leave them with no choice but to charge everyone in the area equally, whether their properties would see one inch or 10 feet of water.

"They've followed our guidance and did right thing from our perspective. It's a major victory," said Gerard Kapuscik, a program manager for the Ventura County Watershed Protection District.

FEMA has not indicated officially how long they expect the Santa Clara River study to take, though Kapuscik said a FEMA engineer indicated to him that it could be a couple of years.

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