New high-tech FEMA maps redefine flood zones

— -- New high-tech maps are forcing many U.S. homeowners to buy flood insurance for the first time, while others who have had coverage are being cleared to drop their policies.

The changes stem from the Federal Emergency Management Agency's multiyear plan to digitize its Flood Insurance Rate Maps to make them more accurate and easier to update.

New flood maps go into effect this month in 123 communities in Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Wisconsin. By 2010, about 92% of the population and 65% of the land in the USA will be covered by the maps, FEMA says.

The maps are the official record of the country's flood zones. The federal government requires properties in flood zones that have federally backed mortgages to carry flood insurance, FEMA spokesman Simon Chabel said. Mortgage companies also use the maps and can make flood insurance a condition for a loan.

Darlene McClure, 47, of Fort Myers, Fla., said she was shocked when she received a letter last month from her bank saying her area had been rezoned and she was responsible for flood insurance. She said she will have to pay $765 more a year, according to her insurance company.

"We … have never had flooding," said McClure, who has owned her home for about four years. "I'm 14 feet above sea level."

In Saltillo, Miss., residents recently learned that about 250 of 1,850 properties will become part of a flood zone at the end of the year, said city Building and Zoning Administrator Brian Grissom. He said property owners have filed appeals. The appeals went to Mississippi's Department of Environmental Quality, which will make a recommendation to FEMA. Grissom said a decision is expected by the first of the year.

Cathy Sink, an Allstate Insurance agent in Fort Myers, said she has received 15-20 calls a week in the past month from homeowners who are concerned about the changes.

The rezoning has brought relief to other homeowners who were once considered to be within a flood plain. Christine Cowan, 60, of Buffalo, paid $800 a year for flood insurance. "It was terrible. I could not afford it," Cowan said. Now, according to the new maps, her property is no longer affected. It "is like having a little extra money for a utility bill," she said.

"In the past we did not have as precise information and so, with the digital products, in some areas the special flood-hazard area has gotten smaller. In other areas it has grown," said Roy Wright, deputy director of the risk analysis division for FEMA.

"We get topography and … aerial photography from the airplanes that fly over the land," Wright said. "Hydrology science has not changed but the accuracy by which we can depict it on the map has vastly improved."

He compared the advancements in mapping technology to high-definition TV over analog.

Coughlin reports for The (Staunton, Va.) News-Leader