Thousands of Palm Beach County properties now in high-risk flood zones

Thousands of Palm Beach County property owners will be in newly created flood hazard zones after Oct. 5 — and that means they’ll be required to buy flood insurance for the first time.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has finalized the , and residents can go to the county’s website to learn whether their flood hazard classifications have changed.

Many won’t like what they find.

Up to 50,839 properties will be newly designated as in high-risk flood zones when the maps become official in two months, according to figures compiled by the county. Many homeowners in those zones who have federally backed mortgages will be required to buy flood insurance.

Many of those properties weren’t developed when the county’s current flood map was created in 1989 — so they didn’t have any flood-risk classification and their owners didn’t have to buy insurance.

A majority of the newly classified high-risk properties are in the western part of the county, including Royal Palm Beach, Wellington, Greenacres and Westgate.

Doug Wiles, the county’s flood plain administrator and building official, estimates 27,000 of the newly reclassified properties are in this area, which remains vulnerable to flooding.

Juno Beach, in the northeast, also has more high-risk properties, Wise said.

But just because a parcel is designated as in a special flood hazard zone on the new map doesn’t automatically trigger mandatory flood insurance, said Christine Benkly, the county’s GIS coordinator.

When the county merged the new FEMA map with its own parcel boundary map, it classified any property with a high-risk flood zone boundary running through it as though the entire property was in a high-risk zone, but that might not be the case, Benkly said.

On an unknown number of properties, homes or buildings are elevated well above the base flood elevation — and considered not at high-risk of flooding, Benkly said.

Property owners unsure of the elevation of their homes or businesses can their cities’ building departments or hire a surveyor, she said.

While the western region is prone to flooding during periods of heavy rain, very few homes become inundated because developers made sure to build above the base flood elevation, said Chris March, village engineer for Royal Palm Beach.

“That’s the way our area was designed,” he said. “Everything fills up with water, leaving mini-islands — which are homes.”

After FEMA’s 2014 draft map moved 8,000 buildings into high-risk flood zones where no zone previously existed, the village hired its own engineer to conduct its own study.

Revised data was submitted to FEMA, and the number of buildings in high-risk flood zones were reduced to about 600, he said.

“Some residents are going to be mapped into flood hazard areas, but when you look at how far we came, we feel pretty good about it,” March said.

Flood insurance ranges in cost from a few hundred dollars for properties in the lowest risk zones to several thousands for properties at highest risk.

Property owners not required to buy flood insurance are still urged to consider it because flooding can happen anywhere, insurance experts say.

Meanwhile, not everyone will receive bad news when they look at the new map. FEMA removed 45,640 properties out of high-risk zones and moved them into zones where flood insurance won’t be required.

Those include newer engineered subdivisions in West Boca and other southwestern parts of the county, Wise said.

And 36,983 properties formerly in high-risk flood zones are remaining in high-risk flood zones.

That leaves 301,432 properties that weren’t in high-risk flood zones before the new maps were created and aren’t in high-risk zones on the new map.

Leaders of the county and its cities say they’re continuing to collect and record more accurate elevation data to submit to FEMA for future revisions.

West Palm Beach is finalizing a new stormwater master plan and planning $25 million in new drainage projects over the next five years, said Ralph Wall, a flood insurance coordinator for that city.

“If significant fill from the projects raises elevation of land higher than the base flood elevation, you’re pulling that property out of the flood zone,” he said.

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