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Flood program defended

It may have been a workshop for county commissioners to respond to a report that identified "serious problems" with the county's compliance with federal flood zone rules. Howevercounty officials and builders who attended Wednesday's meeting weren't in a humble mood.

In fact, they were almost defiant.

They criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which wrote the report, while stressing that they fully intend to comply with its requests. They repeatedly blasted the news media over its coverage of the agency's findings. And they once again heaped praise on the county's flood plain management program.

"We'd like to express our support for the building department, how they handled the disaster (the March 13, 1993, storm)," said Scott Nicoletti, a representative of the Hernando Builders Association. "I think they did a very good job."

Nicoletti indicated the association had problems with the FEMA report released last month. The report identified dozens of coastal properties in Hernando with buildings that didn't meet the agency's flood zone construction rules, including a house owned by County Commissioner John Richardson.

Nicoletti said FEMA used an inaccurate indicator to determine whether repairs to homes met federal flood-zone rules. Instead of using builders' estimates, they relied on insurance claims paid out.

Those figures were typically inflated because insurance adjusters were paid commissions based on the insurance amounts, he said. "They weren't real numbers."

The Hernando Builders Association and Florida Builders Association have both passed resolutions asking FEMA to reassess its 50 percent rule. Nicoletti said the state group has asked the national builders association to do the same.

The 50 percent rule says that homes in a flood zone must be replaced and elevated if damages exceed half the home's pre-damaged value. The FEMA report identified 60 properties where repairs exceeded the 50 percent rule, but weren't elevated.

Commissioner Tony Mosca Jr. also questioned the accuracy of FEMA's findings. "I believe the county did the right thing in applying the 50 percent rule," he said.

Mosca said he was "appalled" that FEMA officials decided not to attend Wednesday's workshop, even though they had been invited.

FEMA officials could not be reached for comment. In a letter to the county, Edward Sergent, director of FEMA's mitigation division, wrote: "Discussing or defending our letter and findings in a public forum prior to receipt of the county's formal response would be inappropriate."

Richardson said the methods FEMA used in its report were "not fair and equitable."

Some commissioners also took aim at the media, suggesting their coverage had misled residents into thinking that the county was in danger of losing its federal flood insurance. FEMA officials have said that could happen if county officials do not cooperate.

"The real reason we're here today is because of the media and their investigative reporting," Mosca said.

Ester emphasized how much FEMA officials had praised Hernando County for its cooperation during the audit and for its flood management program. The audit described the program as among the best in the state, with the exception of its enforcement of flood zone construction rules.

Jody Hill, who heads the Interfaith Coalition of Hernando County, which assisted families after the March 1993 storm, said Hernando had done a much better job meeting FEMA's rules than other counties she has worked in.

Building Official Grant Tolbert, who previously has said that his department misinterpreted FEMA's rules, on Wednesday challenged the accuracy of some of FEMA's claims. "The more we get into this audit, the more I think we acted responsibly," he said.

He said FEMA had created confusion by changing its rules shortly after the storm. After the storm, FEMA allowed counties to estimate the cost of replacing homes, as opposed to requiring the use of market value, to determine compliance with the 50 percent rule.

However, Tolbert admitted the FEMA report makes some valid criticisms of the county and said his department is cooperating with FEMA and would meet its Dec. 23 deadline for issuing a formal response.

Tolbert said his department has spent hundreds of hours preparing a response and has notified a majority of the owners of the 60 properties identified in the report, informing them that their files should be reviewed by the department. Anyone found not in compliance with the FEMA rules won't be allowed to make further repairs or additions to their homes for five years, he said.

The meeting drew a mixed reaction from the audience.

Janey Baldwin said the workshop showed how confusing FEMA's rules are and that the public has been misinformed by the media. Anna Covell of Nobelton blasted the commissioners for their "flippant" attitude toward FEMA's findings.

"Everybody is just trying to fluff that off," she said.