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Beaches: New flood maps may lower insurance costs

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The first major revision in federal flood maps in 30 years has the potential to lower insurance rates for beachfront property owners in Georgetown County, according to local officials.

County and local governments received preliminary Flood Insurance Rate Maps last month, almost a year after their scheduled release date, but earlier than many officials expected as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administers the program, dealt with the impact of record flooding across the state.

“These maps are nothing but a positive for the town,” said Ryan Fabbri, the Pawleys Island town administrator. “I was completely anticipating the opposite.”

The federal flood insurance program requires local government to adopt and enforce building standards that reduce flood damage in order to qualify for coverage.

That includes raising the first floor of structures that are built in flood-prone areas. The height, known as “base flood elevation,” is determined by the FEMA maps.

On Pawleys Island, for example, the current elevation for most beachfront houses is 21 feet above mean sea level. Under the new maps the height will be 16 to 17 feet.

The town requires new buildings to be raised an extra 3 feet. That gives all property owners an insurance discount through FEMA’s Community Rating System, but the biggest savings is for those new buildings.

The reduced base flood elevation on the FEMA maps means some existing houses may have that extra 3 feet to qualify for additional insurance discounts, Fabbri said. He also coordinates the town’s CRS program.

The new maps are still subject to a review period. Officials estimate it could be a year before they take effect and become the standard for determining flood insurance premiums.

“Based on what I’ve seen so far, we’re pretty happy with them,” said Boyd Johnson, the planning director for Georgetown County. Flooding in October that followed record rainfall damaged many homes along the Black River in western Georgetown County. Many of those were in areas where flood insurance wasn’t required or in flood zones that didn’t specify elevations.

That changes under the new maps, and Robert Cox, the county’s chief building official, said the maps correspond with the actual flooding.

For most property owners on Waccamaw Neck, there are two flood zones: VE, where the flooding will be compounded by storm surge, and AE, where the surge will be less. The “E” in both zones means that there is a designated base flood elevation. But the elevation is measured in different ways. In the VE zone, it’s to the lowest structural element. In the AE zone, it’s the actual floor. The difference can mean about an extra foot, Cox said.

Just moving between zones can affect flood insurance rates, he said. In portions of Garden City, lots that are currently in VE zones along South Waccamaw Drive are shown in AE zones on the new maps. That will create a savings for those homeowners if the maps are approved.

In the Birds Nest section of Pawleys Island, where the island widens just before the narrow south end, the new maps show a change from AE to VE. That’s the only portion of the island where the new maps appear likely to raise flood insurance costs, Fabbri said.

On the north end of the island, some lots will also shift from VE to AE zones. On the south end, where the town is looking for ways to rebuild dunes washed away by the October storm, the average base flood elevation drops from 21 feet to 18 feet under the new maps. “I certainly didn’t expect it to be knocked down 3 feet,” Fabbri said.

That could lead to substantial savings for owners of houses that were built before the last FEMA study in 1984. Those houses qualify for subsidized flood insurance rates, but the subsidies are being phased out as the National Flood Insurance Program faces a rising tide of red ink. In one case, the sale of a house on the south end of Pawleys Island that triggered an end to the insurance subsidy resulted in the annual premium rising from $7,000 to $51,000, Fabbri said. (It was later reduced to $21,000.)

Once the new maps are adopted, owners of older houses can get elevation surveys that may show they qualify for lower flood insurance rates, Fabbri said. That could also have an impact on the real estate market, he added.

Pawleys Island is working with the city of Georgetown to create color-coded flood maps to put online so property owners can see the changes.

The black and white maps are on FEMA’s website.

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