FEMA Finalizes Flood Zone Map in Alameda

Meanwhile, getting insurance, curbing greenhouse emissions, and shoring up vulnerable infrastructure are becoming matters of social justice.


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FEMA has finalized its flood zone maps for Alameda, so residents will have to get serious about rising tides.

This summer, as smoke from California wildfires drifted through the Bay Area, officials with the city of Alameda sent notices to certain property owners to remind them to buy flood insurance. The reminder came shortly after the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced that it had finalized flood maps that go into effect on Dec. 21, 2018, and show that 2,000 parcels of land in Alameda fall within a special flood hazard zone known as a 100-year floodplain. FEMA officials explained that parcels within the 100-year floodplain have a 1 percent chance of flooding in any given year.

This newly identified floodplain looks like a brilliantly colored ribbon as it nips and engulfs 2,000 parcels across Alameda’s shorelines, along with sections of the Oakland International Airport. It encompasses several hundred homes around the Bay Farm Island lagoons, the Chuck Corica Golf Course, Doolittle Drive, and Oakland International Airport. It engulfs areas along Eastshore and Fernside; homes along Ballena Boulevard, Cola Ballena, and Tideway near Encinal High School; businesses near the Posey and Webster tubes and Mariner Square Drive; businesses near the Main Street Ferry; and much of Alameda Point.

The good news? FEMA says property owners in the 100-year floodplain who buy flood insurance before Dec. 21, 2018, will receive significantly discounted rates. FEMA officials note that in studying flood hazards throughout the Bay Area, they’ve found that the city of Alameda and Oakland International Airport face some of the most serious threats in the region: Both areas have low-laying shorelines and development built on fill, which puts them at extra risk of flooding, as sea levels rise, fill sinks, and storms intensify.

Still, when FEMA released a preliminary version of its flood insurance rate maps in 2015, some residents resisted the notion that Alameda was at risk of flooding. And when the Port of Oakland, which owns Oakland International Airport, appealed FEMA’s preliminary maps, the city supported the port’s appeal — all to no avail; the preliminary and finalized versions of FEMA’s flood maps are pretty much identical. “There were no adjustments,” said Paul Beusterien, vice president of the Community of Harbor Bay Isle Homeowners Association, which represents 20 residential neighborhoods on Bay Farm Island.

Robert Bernardo, communications manager for the Port of Oakland, said FEMA’s finalized map shows the airport’s north field, where private airplanes are based, as subject to flooding. “It means the general aviation section of the airport would likely flood during a major weather event,” Bernardo said, noting private aircraft operators, aircraft maintenance services, and fixed-base operators that provide fueling, hangar, and ground-handling services will need to adjust their insurance.

Municipalities like Alameda are required to accept FEMA’s finalized flood maps to stay eligible for the National Flood Insurance Program, which allows local property owners to access federally managed flood insurance. And the city confirmed in a written statement that FEMA’s changes to the 100-year floodplain will go into effect in December 2018: “On the main island, this change primarily affects parcels in the Fernside Boulevard area on the East End,” said Alameda city engineer Scott Wikstrom. “On Bay Farm Island, the change primarily affects parcels fronting the northern lagoon as well as those south of the golf course in the Maitland Drive / Mecartney Road area.”

Eric Simmons, a senior engineer with FEMA, said impacted property owners will have a year from the time the maps are implemented to purchase flood insurance, but he encouraged them to buy flood coverage as soon as possible. “They are at risk now in the coming storm and rain season,” Simmons said. Policies typically take 30 days to take effect, meaning residents can’t just wait for a flood and then buy a policy, but grandfathered discounts may be transferred when properties sell. “Unfortunately, many property owners are not aware of their flood risk,” he said.

And coverage rates will jump significantly after Dec. 21, 2019. FEMA flood insurance specialist Edie Lohmann said that it would cost $450 year to insure a building up to $250,000 in value and contents worth $100,000. “If you purchase insurance now, you could be paying as much as $3,000 after Dec. 21, 2019,” Lohmann said.

But even with flood insurance, local property owners have good reason to worry about inadequate coverage. That’s because Bay Area values far exceed the $250,000 cap that the National Flood Insurance Program sets on a residential building’s value. “For most people in California, real estate is part of their portfolio and they want to protect it,” Lohmann said, adding that some opt for extra insurance.

Renters also have options to purchase flood insurance, Lohmann said, but it’s up to landlords to inform tenants of their risk. “The hope is that the landlord will let them know that their building is now in a high-risk area and that they should get flood insurance to protect their contents,” Lohmann said.

Laura Feinstein, a senior researcher at the Pacific Institute in Oakland, noted that in addition to educating communities about flood risks and mitigation strategies, municipalities should make a concerted effort to reach the socially vulnerable. “Those who are already facing social and economic challenges are more likely to experience magnified adverse impacts from environmental risks like increased flooding,” she said.

Feinstein predicted that as sea level rises, so, too, will the price of flood insurance for waterside properties. “We will also need to face the reality that some of those properties may ultimately have to be vacated,” she said, noting that California has instructed its agencies to plan for a sea level rise of 55 inches by 2100. “With 55 inches of flooding, much of West Oakland and Alameda island will be underwater, and during storm surges and king tides, the ocean will reach even further,” Feinstein said. New developments will need to be designed, constructed, and managed to be resilient to increasingly intense flood events, Feinstein added. “We need to make our urban landscapes into sponges, to increase their capacity to withstand heavy rain without severe damage.”

Meanwhile, Beusterien continues to urge the city to raise funds to fix a series of existing infrastructure weakness on Bay Farm Island that could mitigate flooding risks. “The main problem is the lagoon gate wall,” Beusterien said, referring to a structure on Bay Farm Island’s northern shore. “If it fails or overflows, it would cause several hundred homes to be flooded.” Beusterien said the lagoon wall is too low and needs to be raised.

In a written statement, city engineer Wikstrom confirmed that the top of the lagoon gate structure is slightly below what FEMA calls “the 100-year base flood elevation” and that “for this reason, FEMA shows this as a point of entry for coastal flooding at the 100-year flood event.” But while Wikstorm acknowledged that the city is responsible for maintenance in respect to the wall/dike along Bay Farm Island’s northern shore, he noted that “there are not adequate monies for any planned improvements” and that a special assessment would likely be needed to generate the necessary funds.

“It is important to note that raising the lagoon wall alone will not remove properties surrounding the Bay Farm Island lagoon from the Special Flood Hazard Area,” Wikstrom stated, noting that at least three roadway/grading improvements on Island Drive would be necessary to remove the lagoon area from the flood hazard area.

Liam Garland, the city’s public works director, observed that Alameda has already begun identifying points of known vulnerability to flooding and developing plans to protect the island from flooding. “However, the funding of these strategies is a challenge, especially given the city’s storm water fee has been held flat for nearly 15 years,” Garland said.

In June 2018, voters approved Prop. 68, which is intended to assist local governments with parks, flood, and environmental protections. Garland said the process by which the state awards grants for these projects likely won’t be available to Alameda until 2019, at the earliest. “When these processes are opened by the state, yes, Alameda will very likely be applying,” he said.

Garland added that in addition to the city’s climate plan, which is currently underway, the city will assess capital projects necessary to help protect the island from the current mapped flood hazards and future sea level rise. “Importantly, the plan will begin to identify funding strategies to implement the capital improvements,” he said.

In the meantime, the number one action residents can take to prepare for sea level rise is to reduce their carbon footprint, Garland said. “The more each of us reduces our carbon footprint, the less the seas will rise,” he said. “In fact, the severity of sea level rise is inextricably linked to the different greenhouse gas emission trajectories.”

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