Highland flood risks, efforts misrepresented in BND editorial

While the Jan. 8 Belleville News-Democrat editorial provides some welcome attention to the City of Highland’s efforts to assure that the flood risks in the city are properly defined, it contains a number of inaccuracies which are used to blame the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the problem.

Our firm, Oates Associates, has been working with the city since January 2017 to review the FEMA maps and stormwater modeling and to coordinate options to reduce flood risks. While it may seem incongruous to defend FEMA while also questioning their analysis and mapping, our efforts for the city have been to assure that the flood limits are accurately calculated and mapped, not to question the agency’s mission. We feel the editorial’s over-the-top bashing of the agency can be counterproductive, particularly when so many of the arguments can be easily refuted.

Statements from the editorial requiring correction include:

▪  “The parcels needing flood insurance will increase from 135 to 365.” Our study (as presented in an Aug. 9, 2017, public meeting) shows 39 parcels increasing to 113, upstream of the railroad with parcels decreasing from 101 to 58 downstream.

▪  “The flood insurance bills for those 230 additional properties will total about $230,000 a year.” Neglecting the savings for parcels removed from the floodplain, only 74 new parcels will potentially require flood insurance.

▪  “They [the city] called U.S Rep. John Shimkus to prod the railroad along. But in reality, it sounds like Shimkus should be after FEMA.” After six months, the railroad has not commented on the proposed options. FEMA is not the delay. Currently the existing maps are still in effect until the studies are completed.

▪  “The map revisions contain lots of old info, including buildings that are gone. FEMA does not account for several new developments, such as the new hospital, which were required to put in their own retention ponds.” We have pointed out to FEMA that their aerial images do not show recent developments, and the final maps will be revised to include updated images. The new retention ponds have no direct impact on the flood elevation on that property.

▪  “The city spent $127,000 pointing out those mistakes...” Our contract is for $125,000 which not only includes reviewing FEMA’s work but also covers survey and mapping that the city will use to define and administer the floodplain plus modeling of options to reduce the flood elevation.

▪  “... the rail culvert fix, which will be an additional cost of less than $100,000...” The scope and cost of the culvert revisions have yet to be resolved with the railroad.

▪  “FEMA’s projections show flooding in parts of Highland that didn’t flood during the inundation on April 18, 2013, when 4.4 inches of rain fell on the city.” The April 2013 event (actually over 5 inches) is estimated at about a 50-year event. In a 100-year event, about 8 inches would fall over 24 hours.

▪  “It shows areas of flooding that didn’t happen in 1993, when FEMA’s favored scenario of the Kaskaskia River backing up local creeks should have been at its worst.” Flooding on the Kaskaskia River may impact streams further south in St. Clair County, it has no impact on this basin over 20 miles upstream.

▪  “Makes you wonder whether FEMA’s trying to force folks who will never flood into the insurance pool to pay for folks they know will flood.” FEMA policy is based on a 100-year event. That means a property has a 1 in 100 chance of flooding any given year. Shouldn’t they be aware of that risk? Would a property owner decline fire insurance if they knew they had a 1 in 100 chance of a fire?

Finally, the editorial concludes with the question, “Are you listening, Rep. Shimkus?” From our experience to date, the answer is a definite “Yes.” From the outset, Congressman Shimkus and his staff have been helpful in coordinating contacts with and responses from both FEMA and the railroad.

David M. Oates is a professional engineer and the Highland project principal for Oates Associates Inc.