Tuesday, September 17, 2013

TOP STORY >> Fleecing by FEMA a scandal

Leader editor

Tommy Bond, the veteran Jacksonville engineer, solves people’s zoning problems, disputes with government officials and even disagreements between neighbors.

His sharp, analytical mind and easy-going manner help smooth over what at first appear to be insurmountable problems, especially when he’s dealing with bureaucrats and their ridiculous demands on hardworking individuals.

Someone called him a few months ago after FEMA, using incorrect maps, decided the flood plain has moved closer to Graham Road along the railroad tracks, forcing property owners to buy flood insurance for thousands of dollars a year.

That didn’t make much sense to Bond, who has been an engineer for almost 50 years. He was certain FEMA was wrong about the floodplain, having figured out a long time ago FEMA folks can’t produce accurate maps, costing property owners $100 million a year.

Every month, a half dozen or more homeowners ask him to survey their property and prove FEMA wrong. Bond has saved a lot of money for scores of people who would otherwise have bought flood insurance if FEMA had its way.

One business owner was charged $2,300 for flood insurance he didn’t need. After six months, Bond set FEMA straight and the premiums were canceled.

“Our job is to present facts to FEMA,” Bond explained. “We’re more often successful than not.”

When people and institutions are pressured into buying millions of dollars worth of unnecessary flood insurance, it reduces the risk to FEMA by making property owners pay for flooding outside their areas. Even if a home is just outside a flood zone, FEMA will say it’s inside so it can generate more insurance premiums.

“They’ll say you need flood insurance or you have to prove it otherwise,” Bond said.

It can take months to convince federal officials they’re wrong. Most folks just pay the higher insurance premium even if they’re nowhere near the floodplain. But you can beat FEMA if you have the facts on your side.

Michael Teague, an aide to Sen. Mark Pryor, calls FEMA’s maps “arbitrary and capricious.”

FEMA, which went broke after Hurricane Katrina, had proposed a law that would have put three-fourths of the country in the floodplain, Teague said. “The senator led the charge to change the law,” he noted.

Even so, FEMA has been eager to sell insurance to millions of people who don’t need it, requiring coverage for areas in a 500-year or even 1,000-year floodplain, Teague said.

“There were areas that have never been flooded. Pryor killed the plan,” he explained.

But problems still persist as FEMA insists on putting homes in flood zones even if they’re not even close. Teague says homeowners should call Pryor’s office if they can’t get FEMA out of their lives.

It would be a good idea also to call Tommy Bond.

Back in July, the muckraking website ProPublica published an exposé headlined, “Using outdated data, FEMA is wrongly placing homeowners in flood zones.”

FEMA, which has had its budget cut, tried transferring its old maps into digital formats, which often don’t line up correctly, moving homes from safe areas into floodplains. After new maps were issued recently, one couple north of Austin, Texas, learned their home was moved to a flood zone, although they live on a hill and “there’s no way it’s going to flood,” the county’s director of environmental services told ProPublica.

The couple received help from half a dozen engineers, shelled out $1,000 of their own money and spent “ungodly number of hours” to prove FEMA’s maps were wrong. FEMA relented a year later, but how many people will challenge a federal bureaucracy and its menacing ways?

FEMA won’t reimburse you for surveying costs. One person told ProPublica, “It falls to the homeowner to hire a professional engineer and pay (hundreds, even thousands of dollars) “to disprove what I would call their shoddy work,” she said. “I don’t think that’s fair.”

According to ProPublica, “Congress, with the support of the White House, has actually cut map funding by more than half since 2010, from $221 million down to $100 million this year.”

People will more often buy the insurance even if there’s a long drought just to get FEMA and the banks off their backs. Banks are also easily intimidated when the feds insist borrowers must buy flood insurance.

Mistakes are inevitable, but unless homeowners are willing to challenge FEMA, which takes months to review complaints, they’ll get stuck with huge premiums for decades.

If someone from FEMA shows up at your door and says you need flood insurance, hold onto your wallet and call your senators and local surveyor.They could save you a bundle.