February 5, 2020

KEY LARGO — The new preliminary FEMA flood maps stirred trepidation for many homeowners heading into a local floodplain workshop last week.

The outcome of the public gathering was a mixed bag, bringing relief to some who learned their homes actually gained elevation under the new calculations and disappointment to those who learned they lost elevation.

Either way, flood insurance impacts are expected.

“It seems like homes on the bay side did better. The homes on the ocean side, now, that’s a different story,” local business owner Robby Majeska said. “The new flood map gained me 4 feet in Buccaneer Point. I still have to carry flood insurance, but maybe there’s a chance my premium will go down.”

The point of the map revision is to get more properties insured against flooding, according to Majeska, who filed recently to run for the Monroe County Commission’s Upper Keys seat.

Mortgage lenders require such insurance to limit their exposure to losses due to flood damage.

“You have to have insurance if there’s the slightest chance of flooding,” he said.

Even though she didn’t receive entirely good news, local business woman Patricia Mull said she was happy she attended the workshop.

“I am so glad I went. Before I went, I was confident that I was in an X zone and then I learned I have a one foot problem,” Mull said of her highway-fronted business. X zone properties aren’t required to carry flood insurance due to their high elevation.

According to FEMA’s new flood maps, a 1-foot section of the second-floor balcony that Mull owns is designated as an AE zone while the rest of the building is in an X zone. She’s unsure if she needs to insure the entire building.

“I spoke with the engineers that actually did the study and they gave me some really practical information to see if there is anything that can be done,” Mull said. “I may get in touch with a surveyor. This is going to lead to a whole new era in the Florida Keys.”

She believes it may take months to resolve.

Phil Schaper said he was happy to hear his house on Collins Street remained in the X zone, and while the flood zone designation of the other house he owns in Tavernier remained unchanged, he said he learned his flood premium will increase.

“I pay something like $800 a year for flood insurance, but it’s not like I have a choice in the matter,” he said.

FEMA officials estimate the new flood maps will go into effect in 2021 after all appeals have been resolved.

Property owners are allowed to appeal a change in their flood zone and/or base flood elevation during a 90-day window. But when that window begins remains uncertain, according to FEMA officials. And any appeal will have to include detailed scientific information to challenge FEMA’s flood research, including topographical information and hydraulic surveys.

“Since it is a coastal study, it probably will be expensive,” said Mark Vieira, FEMA senior engineer, about the data required for an appeal.

Scott Fraser, Key West FEMA coordinator and floodplain administrator, estimates it could cost up to $20,000 per property to challenge FEMA’s new calculations.

As a result, it seems likely that Monroe County and the nonprofit Fair Insurance in Monroe will have to take the lead on any appeals of the proposed maps in the Florida Keys and have hired flood appeal consultants to begin looking at where they might challenge FEMA.

According to FEMA, homes with a low or moderate flood risk are five times more likely to experience flood than a fire over the next 30 years, and for many who now find themselves in a floodplain, a flood insurance policy could cost less than $400 per year if locked in before the new maps are adopted.

Visit msc.fema.gov/portal/search or monroecounty-fl.gov/1151/New-Preliminary-Coastal-Flood-Maps to search the new floodplain maps. To contact a FEMA flood map specialist, email femamapspecialist@riskmapcds.com.

Staff writer Pru Sowers contributed to this report.