As Hurricane Harvey poured rain onto parts of San Marcos, Buda and Kyle at the end of August, many residents were on high alert, prepared for a repeat of what some have come to believe is the new normal.
“We’ve been through this drill numerous times,” San Marcos Mayor John Thomaides said following three days of rain and wind as emergency officials throughout the county waited for signs of flooding, fielded calls for power outages and cleared debris from roads.
But San Marcos, Kyle and Buda residents were spared from disastrous flooding the likes of which they have seen over the past several years.
Now officials and citizens are turning to updated Federal Emergency Management Agency flood maps to ensure that if catastrophic flooding strikes again, they will at least know whether their property stands a chance against flooding and have insurance if it does not fare well during heavy rainfall.
Updating the maps
For the first time in 12 years, FEMA has updated its flood maps for Region 6, which includes Hays, Caldwell and Guadalupe counties. The preliminary maps were publicly released April 7 and show if and how property owners’ flood-risk zones have changed.
The maps show designations of high-risk, moderate-risk and low-risk flooding, and depending on what zone the property is in determines whether homeowners are required to buy insurance. If homes are in a high-risk flood zone, flood insurance is mandatory for mortgage holders.
The new flood-hazard maps were presented to residents who live within the San Marcos Watershed during a three-day open house Aug. 22-24.
More than 675 people attended what FEMA Public Affairs Specialist Robin Smith called the “one-stop shop” open houses, held in San Marcos, Wimberley and Luling over three separate days.
Albert Sierra, who works for the San Marcos Housing Authority, attended the open house and said he wanted to get more information about renters’ flood insurance needs for the people living in the city’s public housing units.
“Our whole city has been so impacted by floods,” he said, adding he has friends who lost their homes in 2015. “Even if it’s not your house, it impacts the way you think about our whole community.”
Changes in topography, risk
Diane Howe, outreach program specialist for FEMA Region 6, said the region saw more increases from moderate-risk zones to high-risk zones due to changes in water flow and drainage patterns caused by development.
“There are some areas that were not previously in the flood plain that are now in the flood plain,” she said.
More land directly around the Blanco River east of I-35 saw increases in flood-risk zones, and many properties are now considered in the floodway, in areas where development is not possible.
Parts of the Victory Gardens neighborhood in San Marcos, for example, are considered in the floodway according to the new maps.
Properties that are newly mapped into a high-risk area may be eligible for a lower-cost flood insurance rate during the first 12 months following the map change in late 2018, so purchasing insurance before the maps go into effect will save homeowners money, according to FEMA. Premiums will then increase up to 18 percent each year.
“Many times the homeowner believes that they shouldn’t be in a flood plain,” Howe said. “They think their house is higher than everybody else’s.”
When that is the case, homeowners can submit a Letter of Map Amendment, or LOMA, that, if granted, removes the property from being mapped in the flood plain and removes the flood insurance requirement. This requires an elevation certificate that shows the property is actually on higher ground.
“[People] think more about what [insurance is] going to cost than considering what the risk is to their house,” Howe said. “We want people to look at this and to know: ‘Did the change affect my property; what are my options for flood insurance at this point; and knowing that I’m at risk, what should I do besides purchase insurance?”
Residents can submit comments and appeals on the new maps—to note if a street name is spelled incorrectly or a development is not labeled correctly, for example—during a 90-day public comment period this fall.
Following the 90-day public comment period, FEMA will allow a six-month compliance period while new maps are printed and distributed and municipalities formally adopt the new maps into their city codes.
Smith said the new maps should go into effect by late 2018.
For Thomaides, the updated maps are a needed tool for San Marcos’ growth.
“Our storms are becoming more severe; our weather is changing; climate change is real,” he said. “All the science points to it. I just think that this is a new normal for our planet, certainly for our state and our region. We absolutely have to be ever more vigilant and more prepared going forward.”
Residents can see what flood risk their properties are in by visiting http://riskmap6.com/