The waters draining almost 1 million square miles of the United States pass the borders of Alexander County, Ill., daily. Now, for the first time in 19 years, rural residents of the county are able to protect their property when those waters go on a rampage.
Last Thursday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved probationary status for the county's flood insurance program, said Twyla Wareing, county flood-plain administrator. The approval caps seven years of effort to bring the county back into compliance with federal rules.
The probationary approval is a huge step for the county, Wareing said. "If you want to buy a property that is in a flood zone, as long as you can get flood insurance, your bank will lend you money."
The county, bordered on the west by the Mississippi River and on the southeast by the Ohio River, left the flood insurance program in 1988 because residents were upset about the rules governing new construction. But following the flood of 1993 and several meetings with FEMA officials, the county adopted an ordinance in 2000 to come into compliance.
And flooding, at least on the Ohio River side of the county, is possible this week. The Ohio River at Cairo was 4.5 feet below flood stage Wednesday morning, and the county is under a flood watch through Sunday because of expected heavy rains. But anyone purchasing flood insurance now must wait 30 days before it takes effect.
To show the county's commitment to complying with federal rules, 11 structures built since the county left the program have been elevated by their owners above the base flood level, also known as the 100-year flood plain. Some structures, such as a hunting lodge south of Olive Branch, were elevated more than 10 feet.
Acceptance into the flood insurance program means there are no Illinois counties along the Mississippi or Ohio rivers that are not in the program, said David Schein, senior program manager for FEMA's Chicago office. Residents of all Alexander County incorporated towns except McClure were already in the program.
The announcement of probationary acceptance doesn't affect McClure, which as an incorporated town would have to apply separately to join the flood insurance program.
Probationary status mean the job isn't finished for Alexander County officials, he said.
"They have to continue to vigorously enforce the rules and keep it current with any changes," Schein said.
For example, Schein said, there are still dozens of structures, ranging from mobile homes to businesses, that are not in compliance with federal rules. While the owners of those structures are now able to purchase insurance, he said, county officials "must do their best" to bring them into compliance.
Acceptance into the insurance program brings greater opportunities for the county to win grant money for development and to attract new industry. For example, the Olive Branch Library last year lost a construction grant because the addition couldn't be insured.
The flood insurance rules were a political issue during the 2006 race for county commission, with both Republican Mike Caldwell, the eventual winner, and Democratic candidate Duane Lyons calling for a county vote on the issue. Since the election, however, no steps to back away from winning flood insurance coverage have been attempted.
The cost of the flood insurance is based on the risk to the structure. For example, a home that is situated above the base flood level can buy insurance for as little as $1 per year for every $1,000 of coverage. But those in a location in danger of being damaged in a 100-year flood will pay more, perhaps eight times as much, Schein said.
"They receive low rates if they are compliant and very high rates if they are not," he said.
Each policy carries a $50 annual surcharge because of the county's probationary status, which will last an indefinite period.
The county is waiting on new flood elevation maps from FEMA that could change the insurance ratings on particular parcels. But for people who want to obtain the best insurance rate possible, Schein suggested hiring a professional surveyor to determine a structure's elevation.
"A site-specific elevation, while not inexpensive, could pay for itself in a hurry through lower rates," he said.
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