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Beach cities should work with FEMA

Pinellas County's beach cities are overreacting to the county's compromise with the Federal Emergency Management Agency over plans to adopt new flood risk maps for coastal areas. The St. Pete Beach City Commission recently passed a harshly worded resolution that condemns FEMA's plans to include more property in zones designated as dangerous. Tierra Verde and the Gulf Beaches of Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce also have strongly criticized FEMA's plans. Some island residents are even threatening to file a lawsuit against the federal agency.

Has anyone stopped to consider the safety issues at stake if the region's old, inaccurate flood maps are not updated? FEMA has gone to exhaustive lengths to prove scientifically that the maps now in use generally underestimate the flood risks in many coastal areas. Unless those inaccuracies are corrected, communities will continue to be at risk.

Opponents of the FEMA plan fear the proposed maps, which show the predicted height of floodwaters during a hurricane and delineate zones vulnerable to destructive waves, will cause insurance rates to soar and construction costs to skyrocket. While there's no denying costs will increase _ especially on new construction projects _ they don't even begin to compare to the expense of rebuilding a coastal area decimated by a storm it is structurally unprepared to weather.

The controversy over FEMA's flood risk maps began in 1997 when the agency released a new set of guidelines that made rebuilding after a storm tougher and more expensive. The agency redrew maps to include more property in dangerous zones and predicted floodwaters would rise higher than previously figured. Last year, coastal cities launched a campaign to override FEMA's assessments. Pinellas County joined in, paying $850,000 for a new map drawn by a laser that ultimately produced a picture riddled with errors and below federal standards.

After months of political posturing and an interminable technical debate, the county finally decided earlier this year to strike a compromise with FEMA. It was the right decision. Under the plan now in place, FEMA's maps will be adopted in the coming months. Later, a panel of experts will be convened to create a more precise model of predicted storm damage along the gulf coast. Once those models are in place, FEMA plans to launch another study of the county's risks and draw yet another set of maps.

Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is in the process of changing its so-called "coastal construction control line" that preserves beaches by discouraging construction in areas prone to erosion. The new line, which will be subject to months of public debate before it is adopted, already has sparked an angry reaction from some beach communities.

While federal and state officials fine-tune their respective maps, beach cities should prepare to come to terms with the fact that it is in everyone's best interest to develop maps that accurately predict potential storm damage along the coast. Rather than waste time passing shrill resolutions and threatening legal action against the government, residents and officials should take a collective deep breath and consider the consequences of maintaining the status quo.