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Final flood maps on hold

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has delayed finalizing new maps of Pinellas County's flood-prone areas to give local officials more time to draft a challenge to the proposed changes.

FEMA Director James Witt announced Wednesday morning that FEMA will accept scientific studies challenging the new county flood maps until Sept. 30. The original deadline passed Monday.

The maps are important because flood insurance rates are based on the way they are drawn. People who live in zones that are expected to flood more often will pay more.

Beach officials said Wednesday that they were relieved they would have more time to study the map changes and protest them.

"It's a long way from the two years we asked for to challenge this, but it's the best we can do," Treasure Island Mayor Leon Atkinson said. "Now we're going to have to figure out where to go from here."

The proposed maps show how high floodwaters could rise throughout Pinellas along rivers or on the coast in a disastrous storm. They also pinpoint the zones where waves would be slamming against buildings.

FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program bases insurance rates on the maps. To qualify for low premiums, construction must meet certain requirements in the high-risk, flood-prone areas.

As drawn, the new maps predict floodwaters could rise higher than previously thought, and more areas have been included in the highest risk areas for flood damage. Some areas of north Pinellas, where homeowners had never had to buy flood insurance before, such as parts of East Lake, were also put into flood zones.

Local officials have complained the new maps will make construction more expensive, banks more reluctant to lend money in high-risk areas and flood insurance premiums more likely to increase over the long run. They say such results will thwart development.

Local officials, and the county's representatives in Congress, also had complained vociferously that Pinellas County had not had enough time to study the changes and challenge them. U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Rocks Beach, had threatened to amend a future disaster relief bill to prevent the proposed new flood maps from going into effect.

"This does give us time, even though it's short, to analyze their maps," said Jake Stowers, an assistant Pinellas County administrator. "The models they use to create these maps need to be done with good solid data and analysis, based on the best information we have today. We're going to take a look at the parameters they used."

A group of building officials from Pinellas County cities will meet Friday to decide whether they need to hire a coastal engineering specialist to help challenge the proposed maps and who would pay for that.