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St. Pete Beach turns up pressure on FEMA

The city is the first of an expected wave of beach towns protesting new flood risk maps.

The City Commission unanimously approved a resolution last week that rebukes Pinellas County and slams the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

With the vote, the beach formally voiced its opposition to a compromise between the county and FEMA to adopt new flood risk maps for Pinellas.

The maps show the predicted height of floodwaters during a hurricane hit. They also delineate V-zones, areas vulnerable to destructive waves on the coastline where houses must be built on pile foundations.

Basically, the county and FEMA have agreed that the long-disputed flood risk maps can be adopted in the coming months, after some tinkering.

After that, a panel of experts would be convened to create better computer models to predict storm damage on the gulf coast. Once the models are finished, FEMA would launch another study of the county's risks and draw new maps again.

But St. Pete Beach officials demand that no new maps be adopted in the interim. They would rather accept maps based only on a future computer model of which they could approve.

"I think what we're asking is for them to slow down and get some accurate data," said Commissioner Ward Friszolowski.

But FEMA officials suggested last week that city officials could be short-changing their residents by opposing the new maps, which FEMA insists are more accurate.

"What about the benefits to the city of having accurate flood hazard information?" said Mary Jean Pajak of FEMA's hazards study branch in Washington, D.C. "Communities that are aware of and prepared for flooding do better than communities that are unaware of and, thus, unprepared for flooding.

"The maps currently in effect generally underestimate the flood risk," Pajak said. "This could lead the city to rely on the information and allow people to build structures that would be at risk."

The new maps will require people on barrier islands to build their houses about 1 to 3 feet higher and use pile foundations in expanded V-zones.

But Pajak emphasized that Pinellas is not the only county in this situation. For example, a 1996 study of the impact of Hurricane Opal showed that federal flood risk maps in effect in several counties underestimated the risks. After analyzing the storm damage, FEMA recommended redrawing the maps on the north gulf coast to improve them.

The flood risk maps are used to set federal flood insurance rates for new policies. FEMA has promised that old policies will not be affected, as long as they do not lapse and buildings were constructed according to rules in place at that time.

But new buildings must be built above the new projected flood heights, which are increasing by about 2 feet in St. Pete Beach. If an older home is destroyed beyond 50 percent of its value _ and isn't high enough under the new maps _ it has to be rebuilt.

St. Pete Beach's resolution accuses FEMA of failing to complete a necessary economic impact study of the proposed changes.

The beach estimates that due to possibly higher insurance premiums and construction costs, the maps will have at least a $10.2-million financial cost to residents. They guess the impact countywide will be as high as $359-million.

The resolution complains that FEMA wants to suck more insurance premiums out of Florida residents to subsidize disasters in other parts of the country.

FEMA officials called the city's allegations unfounded. Pajak said that an economic impact study was unnecessary. Studies are performed when new rules are created. According to FEMA, the maps are merely tools used to support rules that have already been made.

The city's resolution further gripes that FEMA failed to follow appropriate scientific procedures to predict flood risks. Over the past year, FEMA has adamantly contested that.

Treasure Island is expected to follow St. Pete Beach's lead next week with a similar resolution commissioners discussed last week.

Mayor Leon Atkinson said of the new flood risk maps: "Why replace something that's flawed with something that you don't know is correct?"

The Gulf Beaches of Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce and Tierra Verde also have criticized the county's plan. Some island residents have talked of a lawsuit against FEMA, but so far, no one has ventured that they would pay the bills for a court challenge.

"Obviously, political pressure is what's left to us now," said St. Pete Beach City Manager Carl Schwing. "I think that's part of this step with the resolution."

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