Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 3:25 PM on Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Spit gets flood of new map info

Those affected praise FEMA revisions


Homer News file photo

Gale-force winds in late November 2007 slam a 22.3-foot tide past a homemade breakwater protecting a Spit home and other nearby structures.

Combine an extreme high tide with 3-foot waves from a big storm, and anyone who's lived a few winters in Homer knows what can happen.

Waves crash on the Homer Spit, throwing up rocks and driftwood onto the road. Some areas flood. The sea beats at the pilings of Kachemak Bay beach boardwalks. Even the inner bay side of the Spit isn't safe. If the storm comes from the Mud Bay side, waves can slam over breakwaters, as happened in November of 2002 and 2007.

Storm-driven tides can flood much of the Spit. But how much? If you're a building owner looking to get flood insurance, how high are the rates? If you're planning to build, how high up does a building have to go on pilings or fill to be safe?

Last week, city, state and federal officials held a workshop to answer questions about a revised, preliminary flood insurance rate map, or FIRM, the Federal Emergency Management Agency released in April. The maps are the basis for federal guidelines on flood insurance and building codes in flood areas. Communities like Homer that participate in the federal flood insurance program adopt the maps into city regulations, too.

A proposed revision of 2009 maps, the latest version improves on a draft released last summer that had property owners and city officials scratching their heads —and angrily writing their senators and congressman.

The 2011 draft map showed that the Fish Dock Road area should be in the 1-percent flood area, meaning in any given year there's a 1-in-100 chance of a flood. The revision puts that area in the 0.2-percent flood area, or 1-in-500 chance of a flood — good news for the city with facilities like the ice plant and cranes in the dock area.

"I didn't see anything that made me feel uneasy," Homer City Planner Rick Abboud said of the latest revision.

Spit property owners also were pleased with the revision. Kevin Hogan, a fisherman and owner of the Auction Block, said the new maps look a lot better than the previous draft. Hogan's building is on leased city land near Fish Dock Road.

"It would have adversely affected us," Hogan said of the earlier version. "Financing agencies look at that kind of stuff. You have to have the insurance."

Land's End Resort owner Jon Faulkner said he agreed with the new maps.

"I support it fully," Faulkner said. "By and large Land's End is happy with the results. It's more just and accurate, but it took a long time to get here."

FEMA's reconsideration of flood plain maps might have been spurred by the involvement of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. At a U.S. Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee meeting last October, Murkowski raised concerns about proposed flood plain maps in Juneau and Homer with FEMA director Craig Fugate.

"Some of what we saw was actually more than a little bit bizarre," Murkowski told Fugate, according to a Juneau Empire article.

That was then. Now, Murkowski is happy with FEMA's change in attitude.

"Sen. Murkowski is extremely pleased that she was able to raise the profile of Homer's mapping issues and expedite a solution that addresses the community's needs," said Matthew Felling, Murkowski's communications director. "She's also optimistic that this represents a higher level of commitment to engage with communities that are proactively spotlighting where FEMA's policies fell short."

The maps and a flood insurance study contains jargon and acronyms like VE, AE, BFE, NSRS and NAVD88. An initial letter about the flood map changes to Homer Mayor James Hornaday contained 27 acronyms in the first paragraph, Abboud said.

"It was bureaucracy at its finest," he said. "Even engineers had a hard time understanding it."

Using information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, including recent ocean and coastline mapping of Kachemak Bay, consultants working for FEMA did 25 survey transects of the Spit. With no rivers or streams on the Spit, the flooding hazard comes from tides and storms. The report estimated that the highest storm surge would be 3 feet. Calculating the statistical chance of a storm surge happening on the highest high tide — a record 26.09 feet on Oct. 15, 1966 — the map divides the Spit into these zones:

• AE, an area where there is a 1-percent or 1-in-100 chance of a flood;

• VE, a "velocity" area where there is a 1-percent or 1-in-100 chance of a flood that also has flooding from wave action;

• AO, area where there is a 1-percent or 1-in-100 chance of a shallow flood, or ponding, from 1 to 3 feet;

• The 0.02-percent flood plain area, where there is a 1-in-500 percent chance of a flood.

Numbers next to the letters show how high that flood event would get. For example, a VE-28 zone on the beach below the Seafarers' Memorial means the area would have flooding from wave action at an elevation of 28 feet. Structures in that area would have to be built at an elevation a foot higher and, because the area is a velocity zone, on pilings that can withstand storms. Elevations are not the same as tides, but based on the North American Vertical Datum of 1988, or NAVD88, the point set by the National Geodetic Survey at which surveyors define elevations.

As an example, the Auction Block is at 36 feet elevation, Hogan said.

"I think we're OK, barring a tsunami," Hogan said. "We're probably safe from a storm surge. We've had high tides with a low pressure before, but nothing that would rise to those levels."

Land's End Resort and the Land's End Lodgings, a condominium development, for example, are in the AE-25 zone. Faulkner said the lowest building floor level in the area is at 25 feet.

The revised draft maps haven't been adopted yet by FEMA. That will come after a 90-day comment period to be announced sometime this month. Land and building owners can challenge the maps through either a letter of map amendment, showing proof the structure is above the base flood elevation, or through a letter of map revision, providing technical information why the owner believes the map is wrong. That higher standard required during the comment period is one reason Abboud said he was glad the Spit map had never officially gone to comments.

"We were able to look at it before they opened up the comment period," Abboud said. "Luckily, they took my issues to heart and reviewed them without having a technical basis for arguing them. And now that Murkowski has taken an interest in them, they've (FEMA) changed their ways a bit."

Once the comment period is over and FEMA has considered comments, it will issue a letter of final determination accepting the flood maps. Next to come are maps for the rest of the city of Homer coast, including Beluga Slough and Beluga Lake. When the draft flood maps are released for the rest of the city, another public meeting and workshop will be held, Abboud said.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.