St. John FEMA maps’ accuracy questioned

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Staff Reporter

LAPLACE – Despite the risk of forfeiting state grant money for hurricane-related parish projects, the St. John Council has moved to table a vote on advisory base flood elevation maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The decision came after much deliberation from various homebuilders working in the parish, who spoke out in a public hearing at a recent council meeting. The consensus from the homebuilders was that the maps were rushed in development and riddled with inconsistencies.

“The maps have no science behind them,” Michael St. Martin of St. Martin Homes told the council. “The area was not researched and the maps were thrown on us.”

Harold Flynn Jr., a builder with Land Design LLC of LaPlace, agreed with St. Martin, and explained to the council that the maps do not give consistent heights for base flood elevations in the parish. He said large portions of land north of Airline Highway are being given base flood elevations of 12 feet, where other parts, like Reserve and Garyville, have recommended elevations that are three to seven feet less.

“When this item was up for debate before the previous council, they rejected the maps because there was no science to them, and I recommend you do the same,” said Flynn to the council. “These maps are a negative to the building community. We had no water here when Katrina hit, and they are asking us to go to 12 feet.”

St. John Public Information Officer Buddy Boe said the Council rejected the maps back in September of 2006, and the position has not changed. The council will continue to wait in anticipation of new Flood Insurance Rate Maps, which were the topic of a meeting between FEMA, St. John Parish President Bill Hubbard, and other parish officials back in February. Boe said the maps are expected to be released in the coming days, after about a month of delays.

“These are firm maps that are based on actual research and numbers,” said Boe. “We felt that the new council should make their own choice on where to go on this issue.”

Despite assurances of new maps, Boe said that officials from FEMA had encouraged the parish to reconsider their decision to postpone a vote because they are risking the forfeiture of grant money if the maps are not approved by July 31. Most of the council members believed it was a risk they would have to take.

 “The parish may lose grants, but in the big picture we will have a bigger negative impact on the housing industry,” said District 6 Councilman Ronnie Smith before the vote. “I think we need to wait on the better maps.”

Division B Councilman-at-Large Steve Lee, who was the driving force behind the council’s decision in 2006, was the most vocal opponent of the maps, which he called bureaucratic estimates.

“The builders know the land,” said Lee. “They are St. John people. We should not have our hand forced on maps based on speculation that resulted from the aftermath of a horrible storm (referring to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita). It makes no sense to do this.”

Boe said the parish is working on getting a deadline extension for the grants. He said if an extension cannot be secured, the parish council has the option of calling a special meeting to discuss the issue. Lee said there is an excellent chance that a meeting will take place.

“All I am asking is that we be given a fair chance to debate these elevations,” said Lee. “The FIRM maps have an appeals process that these base flood elevations do not have.”