September 12, 2023 |

Photo – FEMA’s Flood Map – Bigfoot99 file photo

Saratoga officials recently discussed hiring an engineering firm to determine if the town can challenge new FEMA flood maps that will impact some homeowners.

Flood zones have been redrawn by federal officials to include more homes in potential flood zones forcing owners to purchase costly insurance.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency recently revealed the updated flood plain maps, which include more homes in potential flood areas where flooding historically has never occurred—even during the high-water year of 2011 when the river crested at 10.49, according to the National Weather Service. The second highest crest was 10.40 feet in 1917.

Town officials say the new maps appear to use outdated and subjective data to determine which properties are in danger from high water on the North Platte River.

The town is considering employing an unnamed engineering firm to review the federal flood maps and determine if the town has sufficient cause to file an appeal with FEMA. Because no official approval has been given, town officials have yet to release the name of the engineering firm.

During last Tuesday’s Saratoga town council meeting, Public Works Director Emery Penner said the town has been using 49-year-old maps to determine if a property is in danger of flooding from the North Platte River. Penner said 12 years later, the town used the same maps to join the National Flood Insurance Program, or NFIP. The public works director said the maps show who needs to purchase flood insurance, either through a private insurer or the federal government. Penner said the most recent FEMA maps place additional Saratoga properties in the flood plain.

Participation in the National Flood Insurance Program gives the town access to federal disaster assistance in the event of a presidentially recognized catastrophe. Towns that wish to join the NFIP must adopt the FEMA prepared flood plain maps. If FEMA determines that a property is in the flood zone, and the homeowner fails to purchase flood insurance, the property owner may be subject to penalties, including the revocation of their mortgage.

Last year, FEMA provided Saratoga officials with its most recent flood plain map. Councilmembers noticed discrepancies over which properties were now included in the flood zone and which weren’t. The revised map appears to show certain homes in danger of flooding while neighboring properties are not. At the time, Councilman Jon Nelson said he believed that FEMA used erroneous data to produce the map. Councilman Nelson officially petitioned FEMA to come to Saratoga and take in-person measurements, a request the federal agency denied.

Councilman Nelson continued to investigate the federal data. Nelson said FEMA officials told him that the agency used outdated information to create the new flood map. Following the end of his town council term in January, Nelson presented his findings to FEMA as a private citizen.

In mid-July, the federal agency sent a letter to officials from Carbon County and Saratoga stating that a 90-day appeal process was beginning. FEMA demanded officials provide unspecified scientific and technical data to refute the agency’s findings. Time is nearly up for officials to present their data to FEMA.

During last week’s Saratoga town council meeting, Public Works Director Penner said he agreed with Nelson that the maps appeared to be wrong. Penner said he has contacted two engineering firms to examine the town’s data and determine if the maps are factually inaccurate.

Penner didn’t name the two engineering firms he contacted but said one company refused to participate. The public works director said the second unnamed firm agreed with the town’s findings and offered to perform a cursory examination of FEMA’s data.

Penner said the engineering firm will provide the town with their findings. Afterwards, town officials can determine if they want to pursue the FEMA map appeal farther, said Penner. If the town chooses to continue the process, the public works director said the engineering firm will design additional prevention methods to lower the town’s flood risk.

Penner said challenging the federal government may have unforeseen consequences.  The public works director said once an official appeal is filed, any information discovered during the examination must be turned over to FEMA, even if it shows that more homes should be in the flood plain than originally anticipated.

Penner said the map data examination will not happen quickly. The public works director said the engineering firm wants to ensure information sent to FEMA is 100% correct. Penner said he expects to have some preliminary information and pricing ready by the next town council meeting.

The North Platte River is considered to be in flood stage when it reaches 8.5 feet in depth. In 2011, rapidly melting snowpack caused the river to rise to 10.49 feet. Former councilman Nelson said FEMA’s 100-year flood prediction shows the river cresting roughly two and a half inches lower than what occurred in 2011. Nelson said the FEMA map places properties in the flood zone that were unaffected by the 2011 flood.

The town hasn’t officially contracted with the unnamed engineering firm to perform the flood map examination. Public Works Director Penner said he will provide the town council with more information at the September 19th meeting.

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