A fight for flood coverage

Thursday, June 15, 2006
Kenneth Hester, 5, fed the fish in front of the house and business of his grandfather, Dave Curtis, in Olive Branch, Ill. Curtis received a variance to build an extension to make room for his two grandchildren. Without the variance, Curtis would have had to elevate the unfinished extension, back right, 6 feet.

OLIVE BRANCH, Ill. -- In a county with two boundaries formed by rivers, flooding is one of the rhythms of life. Levees provide a measure of security but aren't 100 percent reliable.

Flood insurance is another form of security. Where the Mississippi and Ohio rivers meet, however, many people can't buy it no matter how much they are willing to pay.

Alexander County, Ill., is the only county along the Mississippi or Ohio rivers in Illinois that is not part of the federal flood insurance program. Incorporated towns are in the program, but anyone living in rural areas is barred from purchasing flood protection.

A seven-year effort to change the situation and join the program is under attack from a Democratic candidate for county commission, Duane "Street Preacher" Lyon, who said the costs and aggravation of the program far outweigh any potential benefits.

The most contentious part of the program is the construction rules designed to limit damage in a large flood. An area can decide to join the program, as Alexander County decided in 1999, but any structure built since November 1987 must conform to those rules before flood insurance policies can be purchased.

"Seven years ago, they put the restrictions on," Lyon said. "Seven years later, we have all the restrictions and none of the benefits. Who in their right mind could be for this program?"

Those favoring county participation contend it can attract investment and increase property values. Where flood insurance is not available, lenders won't provide mortgages for home buyers, industrial developers won't consider investing and government agencies won't make construction grants.

Commissioner Angela Greenwell, who supports joining the program, agrees it has been difficult, especially for anyone forced to pay for past laxness. The insurance program's rules rely heavily on the elevation of the land at a building site, elevations that are designated on maps provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

For a long time, Greenwell said, "construction totally ignored any pre-existing FEMA elevations. People just went ahead and built as though no such animal existed."

Flooding isn't just a theoretical problem in Alexander County. At Cairo, the county seat, flood stage on the Ohio River is 40 feet. The highest measured yearly river level at Cairo has been below 40 feet only 20 times since 1844; in seven years it has reached 55 feet or higher.

On the Mississippi River side, large floods in 1927, 1937, 1973 and 1993 have knocked down levees and endangered property.

"When I walk the county, my statement in reference to the flood insurance program is that it is a Catch-22," Greenwell said. "... We live on the banks of two mighty rivers, and we are going to have constant flooding problems."

Under pressure from residents upset about the construction rules, Alexander County commissioners voted to quit the flood insurance program in 1988. In 1999, the commission reversed course, imposing the rules not only on new construction but also on recently completed buildings. Greenwell said she was president of the Cairo Chamber of Commerce in 1988.

"We were told that if we got out, it would not be so easy getting back in," she said. "At that time, I did not comprehend what that meant."

As Lyon tries to ride opposition to the rules into office, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is reviewing the reports that could grant the county a probationary return to the program.

Such a ruling, said David Schein, senior program manager for FEMA's Chicago office, would make flood insurance available for the first time in almost 18 years.

Alexander County has been divided about the program for years, Schein said.

"There are three commissioners, and as far as I can remember, there has been one in favor, one firmly against and one sort of on the fence," Schein said. "I am not surprised" by the opposition "but it is not in their best interest."

All the rules stem from the nature of the program. Private flood insurance isn't generally sold, so Uncle Sam provides a single program nationwide.

Participation means local governing boards must impose rules for construction in areas prone to flooding. Any new construction falls under the rules, including additions to existing structures. The rules are designed to reduce damage during a flood by either floodproofing or elevating the building.

"We always make the point that these are for building protection," Schein said. "It is not zoning. Zoning prescribes the use of land. All we are saying is that if you choose to build, or improve a property, you have to get it up."

Maps prepared by the federal government indicate flood-prone areas as the 100-year flood plain. Any building constructed in a location shown as flood-prone must be elevated.

Dave Curtis and his wife, Kathy, fought with the county over their flood-zone designation when they wanted to expand the building containing their home and business, KC's Bait Shop, at the junction of highways 3 and 127.

Over the past nine years, they've rebuilt the burned-out home there to house themselves and the business. When they took custody of their grandchildren, they decided to build an addition.

After planning for a 560-square-foot addition, Curtis learned last year that the flood-plain rules limited him to adding only 240 square feet -- unless he was willing to elevate the entire structure six feet.

He went through a lengthy fight for permission to build without elevating his home. The permission was granted because Curtis could prove his home was out of the flood-prone zone. A survey completed for construction of a new bridge over the Cache River behind his home helped establish the proof.

Still, obtaining the exemption was exasperating. "I went through a nightmare because I chose to fight the requirements," Curtis said.

The survey that helped Curtis came as officials await a new map, frequently delayed, that is expected to show that many locations once believed in danger of flooding are, in fact, higher than the water is likely to reach.

In all, 10 property owners had to take action to conform to the rules, said Jeff Denny, highway administrator for Alexander County.

One of the most radical steps was forced on Mike Renaud of Charleston, Mo., owner of the Mike Renaud Hunting Club on Highway 3 just south of Olive Branch. He was forced to raise his hunting lodge, finished in 2002, by 11 feet last year.

The lodge, a simple space with a kitchen and a room for hunters to relax before and after visiting Horseshoe Lake, today sits high above the 280-acre cornfield Renaud farms nearby.

The rules were in place when Renaud received his building permit, but no mention was made of them at the time. "I don't know that I want to go pointing fingers at anybody on this deal," he said. "I've got to live with these people. But there was a mix-up on the start."

Federal rules mandate that political entities that don't take part in the program lose benefits ranging from construction grants to funds set aside for disaster recovery. Curtis said he doesn't believe that rules would stand in the way of aid in a major flood.

"If something drastic happened, the government is not going to let these people stand in water up to their necks and die," he said. "The government is not going to let these people go without."

Lyon wants a countywide vote on participation in the flood insurance program. Voters can understand that if they don't want the rules that they will essentially be on their own in the event of a major flood, he said. Most people would be anyway, he said.

"The majority of people in this county can't afford flood insurance," he said. "What good is it if you can buy it and can't afford it.?"

Lyon will be opposed by Republican Mike Caldwell Sr. in the November election. Caldwell did not return messages seeking comment.

Curtis agrees that the issue should be decided in a countywide vote. As things stand today, he said, he'd vote against joining the program. But if the vote comes after FEMA accepts the county into the program, he said, that could sway him to vote for the flood insurance rules.

If Alexander County voters reject participation, Curtis said, they should not whine if it results in big losses during a flood. "If they know that and they are willing to take that risk, it should be nobody's business but theirs."

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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