Flood future

‘California’s Next Nightmare’ prompts insurance, zoning changes in vulnerable Sacramento communities

There is some good news to go with the latest bad news about flooding in the Sacramento region.

Just this month, The New York Times Magazine provided a graphic illustration of large parts of the city, including Midtown and downtown, under up to 20 feet of water in the event of a massive flood.

The Times article, “California’s Next Nightmare,” cited a U.S. Geological Survey forecast that says such a flood in the Sacramento area is not only plausible, but also likely—and long past due. Several such floods have hit the area in the past, including one in the 1860s that had the governor rowing to his inauguration.

A UC Davis geologist quoted in the story predicted a 64 percent chance of catastrophic levee failure in the next 50 years.

With these past and future floods in mind, government officials and lawmakers have been at work on better protecting Sacramentans. In the latest go-round, several communities will be reassessed for flood vulnerability over the next six months. And, in a related move, legislation is in place to ease the costs of flood insurance for property owners.

“Many communities will be moved into or out of flood zones,” explained Diane Margetts, a spokeswoman for Sacramento County, of assessment being conducted by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency. “FEMA will also be decertifying levees near Courtland and Hood,” she added.

For property owners rezoned to flood plains, and for those living near the reclassified levees, the changes mean purchasing more costly flood insurance. According to FEMA, 61,000 property owners in the county have flood insurance.

The premiums are expensive, though, so this month Rep. Doris Matsui passed an amendment in Congress to allow property owners to pay the required flood insurance gradually.

“It’s a way of providing temporary relief, since rates have gone up so quickly and dramatically since Hurricane Katrina,” explained Mara Lee, a staffer with Matsui’s office.

All of this also comes at a time when the U.S. government’s National Flood Insurance Program—designed to help those most at risk—is in the red after payouts from this year’s flooding in the Midwest.

Under Matsui’s proposal, which still has to be passed by the Senate, discounted high-risk rates for building owners will be phased in over a five-year period, starting when an area is remapped by FEMA. The program would immediately apply to flood-zone areas such as Natomas, where residents face a fee of $350 by 2013, which will increase at a 20 percent rate over the next five years. It would also apply to communities that are remapped as risky flood zones by FEMA in the future, such as those being reassessed in the more agricultural south county including Walnut Grove, Freeport, Courtland and Locke.

Matsui has also proposed legislation that would help modernize insurance rates by taking a more holistic approach to flood protection. At the moment, rates are based on the level of federal investment in flood protection. Matsui’s proposal would factor in the local and state investments in flood protection as well.

The hope is that program will be in the black by the time a super soaker hits Sacramento (the 1860s flood came after 45 days of rain) and that the local levees, often 100 years old and built with mud and rocks, and insurance policies hold up under the deluge.

“These efforts are a way to ensure people are protected in the event of a disaster,” Lee said. “We have been lucky we haven’t had a major flood in several years.”