DES MOINES, Iowa — More than a year and a half after a massive flood left a huge swath of eastern Iowa underwater, the tiny farming community of Oakville is clinging to survival.
Many of the town's 400-or-so residents moved on after the June 2008 disaster, leaving local leaders desperate to lure new faces to the community. But they say their efforts are being harmed by an ambitious government initiative to update and digitize the nation's flood plain maps.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency started the $200 million-per-year project in 2004 as a way to utilize advances in mapping technology to better identify areas susceptible to flooding. FEMA officials say the new maps — some of which have won final approval and others which are still in their preliminary stages — will allow for better zoning and help prevent future catastrophes like the flood in Iowa, which caused an estimated $10 billion in damage.
But critics, including civic leaders, developers and home owners in several states, have complained that the new maps are riddled with inaccuracies, seem arbitrarily drawn, and will stifle growth and hurt property values.
"Anyone building new construction, they are probably not going to settle here," said Oakville Mayor Benita Grooms, who is critical of FEMA's proposed map for her town. "Why would they if they have to build their homes up so high and pay $2,000 for flood insurance?"
Doug Boyer, whose home would be in the flood plain for the first time if FEMA's Oakville map gains final approval, said it's inexplicable why FEMA extended the flood plain border to the center of Main Street in the relatively flat town.
"The east side is in the flood plain and the west side is fine — it's odd that the water will stop at Main Street," Boyer said.
Garden City, Kan., has sued to prevent FEMA's proposed map for the city from taking effect. The map for the first time designates areas around two decades-old drainage ditches as flood prone, even though the ditches have never been a problem, said Kaleb Kentner, the city's community development director.
Should their challenge fail, the redistricting would force nearly 2,000 homes and businesses into a flood plain and force property owners to buy expensive flood plain insurance, Kentner said.
The proposed digital maps for Linn County, Iowa, are almost unrecognizable, said county planning and zoning director Les Beck. There is a stream that appears on aerial maps that isn't in the same place on the new digital maps, he said.
"You overlay the maps and it's just not the same," Beck said. "It's in a different location.
And the new maps for Barre, Vt., predict that 20 percent more water would enter the city's business district than the current maps predict, said Mike Miller, the city's planning director.
He said the maps will hamper redevelopment projects, and that the city is deciding whether to appeal to change the maps.
Josh deBerge, a FEMA spokesman based in Kansas City, said there are few substantial changes in the new FEMA maps, and that any major changes were made because advances in mapping technology allowed for better analysis.
"When home and business-owners know and understand their risk, they are more likely to take steps to reduce their risk," deBerge said.
FEMA welcomes criticism of the digital maps and is open to making changes if a compelling scientific case can be made, deBerge said.
"What we're looking for is evidence, a study or survey that would provide more detailed information that can be incorporated," deBerge said.
Generally, it takes about 18 months from the time a preliminary map is released to when it takes effect. During that time, FEMA holds community meetings followed a 90-day appeal process and a FEMA review of concerns raised during the appeals process. Once an appeal is resolved, FEMA issues a letter of final determination and provides the final map to the community.
If a challenge fails, communities may be stuck changing land use and development plans — a process that could take up to six months before a new map takes effect.
Residents may have to pay thousands of dollars on surveys to prove they should be exempted from the maps, and in some cases could be forced to elevate their homes.
John Bishop, a project manager for Illinois' Floodplain Mapping Program, which was contracted to work on that state's digital maps, said Congress appropriated money for the re-mapping project but not for new engineering studies.
He said one problem was that FEMA started with maps that are up to 20 years old, then put them into digital form, making improvements where possible. In some cases, new land development has changed water flow and runoff patterns since the maps were first drawn.
But he said most of the problems in Illinois have been corrected, and that the new maps will be more precise and easier to correct once new data become available.