Leaders voice concerns as FEMA starts redrawing Ithaca’s flood maps

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Cascadilla Creek in Ithaca surged last summer. Local officials say flood mitigation projects there are overdue. (Megan Zerez/WSKG)

BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG)—The City of Ithaca is set to get a new flood map for the first time in four decades. A draft released by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in February significantly expands what areas of the city are deemed at risk of frequent flooding.

While a final map won’t go into place until early 2024, some politicians have raised concerns about its effect on homeowners, as well as the need for protections against climate change.

An update to the flood map, which dates back to 1981, could bring along improvements to the city’s creeks and flood control channels.

“If we are proven to be a flood area, we might be eligible for grants that could help mitigate it,” said Alderperson Ducson Nguyen, “which means more dredging, higher berms, raising bridges.”

But it could also put a heavy burden on homeowners in areas FEMA deems likely to flood. Households with government-backed mortgages will be required to purchase flood insurance, under law, if their house is in a high-risk flood zone.

The measure applies to all homes within the map’s 100-year flood zone, which denotes areas that have a 1% annual chance of severe flooding.

It is not uncommon for some private lenders to also require flood insurance, and can cost homeowners thousands of dollars a year.

“It’ll make homes less affordable than they already are, and that’s already an issue that we have in the city,” Nguyen said.

Landlords who have to pay flood insurance could, too, increase rents to cover the cost of protection. Nearly all of Ithaca’s North Side and Fall Creek neighborhoods are included in the draft’s expanded flood zone.

“When you have flood insurance, all of a sudden, that may cost anywhere between $2,000 to $6,000 a year,” explained Jay Franklin, assessor for Tompkins County.

That could look like a $200 to $500 increase in monthly mortgage payments, Franklin said.

The map is subject to public comment and will undergo an appeals process before it becomes final. But state Senate candidate Leslie Danks Burke said FEMA’s draft signaled an urgent need to protect residents from the effects of climate change.

Speaking to reporters last month, the Democrat called on New York to release state funds for flood mitigation projects, such as dredging and installing or raising flood walls.

“We’re standing right in front of Cascadilla Creek, which needs creek bed maintenance. We need to make sure that those funds get released as soon as possible,” Danks Burke stressed. “The maps are only what is calling our attention to it.”

Flood mitigation measures could reduce the number of homes at risk, but Ithaca Superintendent of Public Works Mike Thorne said a lack of funding and the delayed release of Tompkins County’s natural hazard mitigation plan had stalled those efforts.

State and federal agencies required that the county adopt a plan before municipalities there could apply for pre-disaster mitigation aid.

“It’s unfortunate, we wish that we could have gotten the mitigation measures in place before the maps were released,” Thorne said. “But it’s not due to lack of trying.”

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) finished construction on a facility to dewater dredged material from the Cayuga Inlet in 2019. The second phase of its dredging design project is 60% complete and slated to finish at the end of 2022. But due to the extent of work necessary and estimated cost of the project as a whole, the DEC will break the effort down into several phases.

“The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is working closely with federal, state and local partners, including the city of Ithaca, to advance this important flood mitigation project and determine next steps,” agency spokesperson Jeff Wernick wrote in a statement Monday.

The city can also apply for grants from FEMA to continue its mitigation efforts. Thorne said the city can then request to change its flood maps once mitigation projects are complete. That isn’t likely to happen, however, until 2025 or 2026, after property owners are required to take out flood insurance.

FEMA is redrawing maps for all of Tompkins County. The agency’s drafts also expanded high-risk flood zones in Dryden and Freeville.