Local News

Saturday, Sep 25 2010 10:00 AM

LOIS HENRY: A "paper flood" in McFarland is costing residents their homes

By The Bakersfield Californian

This is one of those tales that has so many "Are you kidding me?" moments, I fear it will be hard to get through without eye rolling so massive it could cause injury. So, please, pace yourselves.

First of all, it's about FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Administration of Hurricane Katrina fame). OK, there's your first minor eye roll.

FEMA has been going around California and the country the last few years updating its flood maps.

The last time they did it in Kern County, or more specifically McFarland, was 1986.

Back then, McFarland and its surrounding farmland were given two flood zone designations.

A narrow sliver of the town along the east side of Highway 99 was designated as Zone AH, which means the area occasionally floods but only to about one to three feet.

The rest of McFarland and surrounding farmland was designated as Zone X, which means it was in a 500-year food plain (i.e. pretty much never floods) and if it ever did, it would be one foot or less and/or it's protected by levees.

For homes and businesses in the AH designation, all they had to do was produce evidence their property was above the one- to three-foot level and, bingo, they didn't need to buy what can be very expensive flood insurance. Zone X requires no flood insurance.

That was then.

Two years ago, FEMA decreed that a wide swath of town west of 99 and generous portions of surrounding farmland were no longer Zone X, but were now Zone A.

The narrow strip of town that had always been Zone AH, remained in that category.

The new Zone A designations have been disastrous for the unlucky residents in western McFarland.

Zone A took them from the "never flood" category and put them in a 100-year flood plain with NO base flood elevations.

There is no way for property owners to show their home, business or land is above the anticipated high water mark because FEMA didn't give a base.

Suddenly, hundreds of McFarland residents, mostly working families, have had to add $1,000 to $1,500 to their yearly budgets for flood insurance in an area of town that has never seen even ankle deep water, according to Mayor Kenneth Rossen, who's lived there 60 years.

Zone A is for riverbank property, he said. Along a real river with water in it.

"They really screwed us," said Rossen, who had to spend $1,300 for the mandatory insurance. "My flood insurance costs me four times what my fire insurance does."

McFarland has protested via a "letter of map revision," which FEMA is mulling over.

Soooo, how did FEMA come to the conclusion that McFarland was practically the next Lower 9th Ward waiting to happen?

After reading the Flood Insurance Study it put out in 2008 enumerating all the risk factors it considered for all the towns in Kern County, I can unequivocally say that I have no earthly idea.

After much wrangling, I got a FEMA engineer on the phone and asked how the flood zones were changed.

They did a "limited detail study," FEMA's Ed Curtis told me.

Was that an engineering study? A computer model? Did FEMA send someone to McFarland? Why does their Flood Insurance Study seem to suggest that stream runoff figures used for McFarland came from a 1978 Riverside flood control manual? What's the status of McFarland's protest? I was full of questions.

Curtis said they do use a computer program and parameters for that program are set by the Riverside document.

Huh.

Other than that, he didn't know much about the McFarland situation. I was told that all the FEMA people most involved with McFarland were out of the office until next week.

He did say that once FEMA gathers all the required information on McFarland's protest, the administration will have 90 days to respond.

McFarland's long time City Engineer Ernie Kartinen said his firm will be sending the most recent documents requested by FEMA -- detailed information about the Friant-Kern Canal's construction and capacity going back to pre-World War II -- next week.

As far as he can tell, Kartinen said, FEMA never did any kind of engineering study. And the documentation they're now asking for is, well, crazy.

Not only that, as FEMA was requesting more documents in reaction to McFarland's protest, they also demanded that McFarland use its own local numbers on stream run off, etc., and plug those into FEMA's computer model to see if they got a different conclusion.

No problem, Kartinen's firm said, give us the model.

Oopsie!

Turns out FEMA never did a computer model, Kartinen said. (Yeah, I know, that deserves a jaw drop, eye roll, expletive combo.)

OK, so no engineering study and not even a lame computer model. Perhaps they used a Ouija board?

"They did this with no justification at all," Kartinen said.

In the course of preparing McFarland's protest, Kartinen also discovered that FEMA has an in-house policy that allows the administration to ignore any flood control facilities that were not "planned, designed, constructed and maintained as flood control facilities."

So, the Friant-Kern Canal (a massive double levee that stands six to eight feet above the ground for hundreds of miles), the Burlington-Northern-Santa Fe Railroad and Highway 99 (both also several feet above the ground), which all flank McFarland to the east and south, don't count as flood control.

Well, in reality they do.

It has been exactly those structures that have controlled occasional minor flooding from Poso Creek for generations, allowing just a little water to leak into that narrow strip of McFarland east of Highway 99.

But reality isn't part of FEMA's world.

"They can just wipe those off the map as if they weren't there," Kartinen said. "It's like they're doing whatever they can to find a way to put McFarland into a flood zone."

It isn't just McFarland.

Several small towns sprinkled throughout the valley down to parts of the Los Angeles metro area have also been hit with what appear to be arbitrary and expensive new flood zoning.

For some families the extra cost of mandatory flood insurance was the straw that broke their grip on home ownership.

"Our house payment went from $1,800 a month to $2,200," Juliana Gonzalez said. It came at exactly the wrong time, just as her husband was getting back to work after suffering a broken wrist in a car accident.

"We were just getting caught up on our bills and got the notice that we had to get flood insurance," she said. They hunted around and couldn't find anything affordable so the bank ended up just tacking it on to their house payment. They couldn't make it.

"We had to let it go in a short sale."

Other residents I spoke with who did get insurance are contemplating doing the same thing.

If his house had retained its value when he bought in 2007, it would be one thing, Luis Ramirez said. But his brand new $225,000 home has dropped to $120,000. He was already in the process of trying to get a loan modification when he got zapped with flood insurance.

"It's not worth it now," he said.

Another man is pondering pulling up stakes in McFarland.

"Why live in McFarland when I can go to Bakersfield where there's no flood insurance?" asked Jose Ramirez.

Bakersfield has a large levee system that was planned, designed, constructed, etc., specifically to contain flooding from the Kern River. So, to FEMA, that counts.

All the city has had to do is recertify the levees, which are "good as gold," Water Resources Department Manager Art Chianello told me. The city will submit its recertification reports to FEMA in the next six months and Chianello anticipated no change to local flood zoning nor homeowner insurance requirements.

Meanwhile, McFarland appealed to Congressman Jim Costa for help.

He worked on a bill that would delay the mandatory purchase of flood insurance for five years in newly designated flood areas so property owners wouldn't be burdened with that extra cost while protests like the one McFarland has filed are sorted out.

That bill, HR 5114, passed the House but is now languishing in the Senate, Costa said.

"I'm hopeful that in the next two weeks the lame duck Senate will act on it."

He said FEMA seems to have gone overboard in reaction to the criticism it received after Hurricane Katrina.

He has also sent FEMA a letter and heard back that they're "working on it."

"Their response is unacceptable and they need to do a much better job reaching out to our communities," he said.

I don't know.

Instead of reaching out to us, I think we'd all be better off if FEMA kept its hands to itself.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com

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