By Mitch Paine, CFM
Nebraska has had a slew of natural disasters recently. From the flooding along the Missouri River in 2011 to the tornado activity of 2014, communities have faced the wrath of Mother Nature. In many of these disasters, floodplain administrators have had to become very involved. Floodplain administrators often wear multiple hats, serving additionally as village clerks or emergency managers, but they play crucial floodplain management roles in rebuilding after a disaster.
Rebuilding homes and businesses is a top priority for most homeowners and business owners after a disaster. The floodplain administrator’s major role is ensuring that all of the rebuilding complies with floodplain management regulations, particularly the section of local ordinances related to substantial damage. This section requires communities to ensure that structures damaged 50% or more of the pre-damage market value meet all floodplain requirements for new construction. If any rebuilding happens and is noncompliant, the entire community could face negative ramifications from the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Typically, the floodplain administrator is responsible for making substantial damage determinations and ensuring that any permitted construction work is consistent with these determinations.
Some communities develop Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s) for post-flood requirements and likely more communities could benefit from having these SOP’s in place. There are a few requirements, however, that all floodplain administrators should know about. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region VII developed a guide for these that is available on the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources (NDNR’s) website.
There are a couple things a floodplain administrator could do before any disaster happens to prepare. Knowing your Flood Insurance Rate Maps very well is key to understanding where substantial damage determinations are going to be important. It is also helpful to develop a database of structures located in the floodplain that includes address, market value, and other characteristics. Conducting substantial damage estimates is far easier with this database.
The floodplain administrator has a major responsibility to conduct a post-disaster structure survey, which establishes the data used for a determination of substantial damage. These estimates are critical to have before any property owner attempts to rebuild. If a structure is damaged more than 50% of the pre-damage market value, then it would have to be rebuilt in compliance with floodplain management regulations. Many property owners are likely unaware of this requirement and may need help understanding the regulations.
Floodplain administrators will have to go structure by structure and evaluate damage. In the event of a large disaster, communities can request substantial damage determination assistance from FEMA. The structure-by-structure estimate must be done for any type of damage, including flooding, wind, or fire. Substantial damage estimates should consider damaged structure components like the roof, superstructure, HVAC, doors and windows, etc. All of these estimates can be used to calculate total damage estimates with the Substantial Damage Estimator (SDE) software tool from FEMA. Once the substantial damage estimates are calculated using the software tool, they can be compared to the market value of the pre-damage structure. Communities should give property owners the opportunity to appeal if they have better data from a professional.
Particularly after a flood disaster, developing a system to post each structure with inspection findings can help facilitate rebuilding. FEMA’s guide suggests tags similar to the following:
- White – building damaged, inspection required before re-entry
- Green – building inspected, no apparent hazard, minimum repairs needed
- Yellow – building inspected, minor repairs
- Orange – building inspected, apparent damage in excess of 50%, repairs not authorized until damage extent verified
- Red – building inspected, apparent extensive damage, no re-entry
Associated with these tags would be notice that a floodplain and/or building permit is required before any repairs are done. After the appropriate permits are granted, then the property owner can go about rebuilding. The community should establish a system to continually monitor and inspect rebuilding to ensure compliance.
On June 16th, an EF4 tornado struck Pilger, and wiped out over 50 homes and businesses in the center part of town. Much of the town lies in a floodplain and thus many of the structures that were damaged will have to be built back with the lowest floor at higher elevations in order to meet local floodplain regulations. Kim Neiman, the village clerk and floodplain administrator, had a tough set of tasks including conducting substantial damage estimates. She requested help from FEMA Region VII and NDNR and after visiting nearly a dozen structures, she was able to provide damage estimates to all structures in the floodplain that were hit by the tornado. In the end, a number of homes and businesses in Pilger will have to be rebuilt either elevated one foot above Base Flood Elevation (BFE) or floodproofed (non-residential structures only). Once the community is rebuilt, a significant portion of the homes and businesses will be far safer from flooding and if safe rooms are installed, will be safer from tornadoes as well.
After the major floods from the Missouri River in 2011, many county floodplain administrators were responsible for substantial damage estimates. Most of the homes along the river that were heavily damaged were built before the floodplain maps were available. Floodplain administrators had to help homeowners understand floodplain regulations and some had to deal with new maps with floodways recently designated. Ultimately, many of the homes that were substantially damaged due to this flood were in the areas of highest flood risk and likely will not be re-built. However, those that are should be at less risk since they will be required to meet current floodplain management regulations and will be elevated.