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New FEMA flood maps are coming, but many homeowners say they've experienced the risks firsthand

Bob Foley, a retired insurance broker and state representative, stands outside his Drakes Island home in Wells. He finished rebuilding the home last year and said the modifications withstood the severe storms that inundated coastal Maine back in January.
Nicole Ogrysko
/
Maine Public
Bob Foley, a retired insurance broker and state representative, stands outside his Drakes Island home in Wells. He finished rebuilding the home last year and said the modifications withstood the severe storms that inundated coastal Maine back in January.

When Bob Foley built his Drakes Island home in Wells 40 years ago, he constructed it with future flood risks in mind.

He built the home higher than he needed to and installed vents in the crawl space so that water could easily flow out.

But two years ago, the family decided they wanted to renovate. And Foley, a retired insurance broker and state legislator, knew that changes to Federal Emergency Management Agency floodplain maps were coming.

"Looking at the flooding and the potential flood maps and the elevations, we decided that it would be better to just rebuild the house," said Foley, who sits on the Wells select board.

So when Foley rebuilt the home, he elevated it, again. The new foundation sits about 2.5 feet higher than the original.

"We had never seen water up here in the past, and the water here comes from the marsh," he said. "The marsh is just beyond those woods, and as the storms are coming, we could just watch the water kind of seep in here."

The decision to build higher paid off, Foley said. No water made it inside his home during recent storms.

"Had we had the old foundation with the flood we had this winter, we would have had a foot of water in our crawl space," he said.

Foley is not required to have flood insurance, because he no longer has a mortgage. But he keeps a policy anyway, and is among the 1% of Maine homeowners who have flood insurance.

Updated FEMA flood maps coming to York and Cumberland Counties

Foley's home falls within a zone that FEMA said faces a small, but significant annual risk of a 100-year-flood.

And soon, hundreds of additional properties in York and Cumberland Counties will be part of that zone too, according to regional floodplain maps that FEMA has spent years updating.

The updated, digital maps become official this summer. Many towns haven't had new maps for years, if not decades.

Homeowners in the floodplain who have a federally-backed mortgage will be required by their banks to purchase flood insurance. And many are not thrilled with the prospect.

"It is truly a concern?" said Lisa Westberg, who moved with her husband from New Jersey to Scarborough nearly 25 years ago.

A bad storm flooded their basement in New Jersey, and when they moved, Westberg said she asked Scarborough town officials about the neighborhood's flood history.

"They pointed me to places in town that had flooded, but never here," Westberg said. "And I was okay, we're safe."

But Westberg eventually learned that FEMA considered part, but not all of her property is a potential flood risk.

From a seat at her dining room table, Westberg pulls out a thick folder full of paper maps and engineering studies. She used them about 20 years ago to secure an exception from FEMA so she wouldn't have to purchase flood insurance.

But with these new maps, Westberg doesn't think she'll qualify for an exception now.

The average flood insurance policy in Maine runs about $2,700 a year, the second-highest in New England, after Connecticut, according to 2022 FEMA data.

Westberg and her husband are semi-retired and uncomfortable about paying the extra cost. She also worries the value of her home will dip once the new maps go into effect.

That's a common concern among property owners, said Charles Colgan, the former Maine state economist and a professor emeritus at the University of Southern Maine.

Most floodplain maps are imperfect because they’re based on historical observations and measurements that are often outdated, Colgan said.

"They do not account for sea level rise, nor do they account for the increase in precipitation probability that are both known to be consequences of climate change," Colgan said.

Many municipal officials in Maine agree. Several communities in York and Cumberland counties challenged these FEMA flood maps several years ago and attempted to add what they viewed as more accurate measurements and projections to the mix.

Still, municipal officials said FEMA's maps overrepresent the risk in some places and underrepresent it in others.

Westberg said she knows storms are getting more intense.

"I think we're at a new normal. Are we are going to be at a new normal that brings three feet of water in here, which is what would have to happen for it to come up that marsh to here? I think it would be three or four feet. I'm not worried about it," she said. "Maybe I'm naïve, but I'm not worried about it."

After all, Westberg said, she's never had water inside or close to her home, and the woods serve as a buffer between her house and a nearby marsh.

John Houlihan stands outside his Drakes Island home in Wells. Houlihan said his property is a new addition to FEMA's floodplain maps, and he plans to purchase a basic flood insurance policy.
Nicole Ogrysko
/
Maine Public
John Houlihan stands outside his Drakes Island home in Wells. Houlihan said his property is a new addition to FEMA's floodplain maps, and he plans to purchase a basic flood insurance policy.

John Houlihan has never had water inside his home in Wells, either. But it came close enough during the recent storms, he said.

"If that's the level of water that we've never seen before, and climate change is real, then what are the chances that it could be higher next year, five years, ten years?" he said. "And in our assessment, the risk is pretty high.

Most homeowners' insurance policies do not cover flood damage, and many can't afford to completely rebuild.

For Houlihan, he said he'll purchase a basic flood insurance policy. His home is one of the new additions to the FEMA floodplain maps. But Houlihan said he doesn't need a map to tell him what he's seen from his window this year.

Towns in Cumberland and York Counties have deadlines this summer to approve new floodplain maps and accompanying ordinances in order to remain in the National Flood Insurance Program. In Cumberland County, the deadline is June 21. York County faces a July 21 deadline.

Check with your town to view the updated floodplain maps, or view the existing maps through FEMA. Note the new digital maps aren't available until this summer.

Federal, state and local officials will host open houses in both counties in the coming months to answer questions about the FEMA flood insurance rate maps. Read more about the upcoming events on the Maine Floodplain Management Program site.

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