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LA River residents told to brace for 100-year flood

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In the next two years, FEMA might mandate that property owners along the river get flood insurance

FEMA is considering remapping a 13-mile stretch of the river to require more than 3,000 property owners to obtain flood insurance.
By Liz Kuball

The Atwater Village Neighborhood Council is warning thousands of residents living along the LA River that they may be at risk for flooding—and might be required to obtain flood insurance in the next two years.

A 13-mile stretch of the river, from Barham Boulevard to First Street, is in danger of experiencing what experts call a 100-year flood, meaning there’s a 1 percent chance of a major flood every year, according to a 2016 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study.

The Army Corps has recommended that stretch for FEMA flood insurance remapping, potentially affecting 3,075 parcels on both sides of the river, including 2,574 properties in the city of Los Angeles, with the remaining properties in Glendale and Burbank.

Since the release of Army Corps study three years ago, city officials have been busy responding to requests from FEMA for additional information that will help the federal agency determine if, when, and how the area needs to be remapped. If it is remapped, property owners would be required to buy flood insurance.

But neighborhood councilmembers say there’s been a dearth of community outreach or communication to property owners and residents, which is why they’re stepping in to remind residents to prepare for when FEMA does reach a conclusion in the coming years.

“[The river] was never built to hold a 100-year flood,” says Karen Barnett, a longtime Atwater Village resident who chairs the neighborhood council’s river committee.

The LA River last flooded in 1938 and 1969, but those were 50 year floods, half the size of the one that could potentially hit now. LA’s rapid expansion since the 1930s and ’60s has made the river more susceptible to flooding today than it was when it was then.

Jody Rath, a neighborhood councilmember, says the river’s decreased water capacity is due to a triple-threat: development downstream, increased vegetation, and the increase in severity of recent weather events due to global warming.

If a 100-year flood were to happen today, a projected 1,000 acres would be inundated along that 13-mile stretch, reaching up to 18 feet deep in certain areas, the Army Corps study found.

The Atwater Village Neighborhood Council is aggregating and disseminating information about the risks of flooding and remapping, and the actions people can take to mitigate them.

“The repercussions [of the flood could] affect the whole neighborhood,” says Barnett. “So you might not be financially affected, but your quality of life could be affected—like if a school floods, where would your children go to school?”

Outreach to the community is currently focused on how to prepare for a flood—like planning escape routes, accruing emergency inventory, and locking down the right insurance plan—as much as it is on what to do should FEMA update the maps, because remapping would bring major financial headaches. The neighborhood council is hosting workshops, planning future roundtables, and pulling together informational resources on its website.

“The homes in the potential special hazard flood area, at some point when this remapping occurs, will have to pay for high risk flood insurance if they have a federally backed mortgage, which are most mortgages in the U.S.,” says Barnett. “The decisions they make today can affect not only their physical safety, but their financial safety.”

Concerns about insurance hikes are not unprecedented.

When FEMA updated the flood maps for San Mateo in 2014, residents were hit with near-bankrupting insurance mandates. For longtime residents who were grandfathered in with their insurance, it put an unfortunate dent in their savings. For newer residents, the impact was devastating.

“Our insurance bill was unbelievable. We were speaking to multiple insurance agencies and quotes were coming in for total coverage, which was around $10,000 a year,” resident Dave Jordan told the San Mateo Daily Journal. “Had we known that... I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have purchased this house.”

But it is still unclear whether FEMA will revise the flood insurance maps along the LA River at all.

If it does, it will likely take FEMA at least two years to revise them, giving the community enough time to prepare.

“If we can’t stop the remapping, then we can at least lessen the remapping’s impact on the homes and businesses that are in Atwater Village,” says Barnett.

The neighborhood council is advising community members to apply for a low-cost “Preferred Risk Policy” for flood insurance, or at least apply for flood insurance now to increase the likelihood that they are grandfathered in for lower rates.

It also wants the city and county to request more federal funding for maintenance along the river and potential construction of a flood wall, improve the community response system rating which improves public safety and reduces the cost of flood insurance, and add potential flooding to the city’s AMBER Alert system.

Deputy city engineer Alfred Mata tells Curbed that “the Los Angeles County Flood Control District is in the process of preparing a Los Angeles River Master Plan Update. Reducing flood risk is one of the goals of the plan.”

The draft master plan will be issued in 2020.