Outdated Flood Maps Underlie Emergency Relief Efforts In Steuben Co.

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BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG)—Woodhull, southwest of Corning, has been an epicenter of damage from flooding caused by Tropical Storm Fred last month.

Most homes in the rural hamlet were technically out of the floodplains depicted by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood maps. Those maps, however, have not been updated since 1991.

The Price Tag Of Flooding

Helen Colegrove lives on Mill Street among the homes hardest hit by the floodwaters, but said she was one of the lucky ones. When the creek that runs through the center of town flooded, her cellar and garage took the brunt of the damage.

But Colegrove, who ran a daycare program out of her home, kept her appliances in the cellar. Her furnace and electrical box, among others, sat under about 7 feet of water.

Riverine flooding in Woodhull, Steuben County, swept close to 7 feet of water into Helen Colegrove’s basement, damaging her utilities. (Jillian Forstadt/WSKG)

“They shut our electric off the next day, and we have to have an all new box,” Colegrove said.

Her neighbor across the street, despite being flooded, had some of their appliances on the first floor and their power stayed on. It is recommended homeowners reduce their risk of flood damage by moving appliances higher up or keeping them upstairs.

But Colegrove must replace more than just her electrical box. Moving all of her appliances upstairs would be beyond her price range.

“My nephew figured it out, he said it would be about $8,000,” Colegrove explained. “That’s too much right now with everything else I’ve gotta have.”

A week after the rain stopped, Colegrove’s nephew and a friend were still cleaning up the water and mud that inundated her basement. Much of the water outside dried up in the days that followed, when the area was caught in a heatwave, leaving roads covered in thick, brown dust.

According to Colegrove, the heat has caused the water to evaporate upward, making her hardwood floors buckle.

Colegrove had already put more than $800 into repairs and there is more to be done. Plus, she did not have flood insurance. Colegrove said she was told her family did not need it.

“When we got our mortgage we couldn’t get it because we weren’t in a floodplain,” Colegrove said. “They won’t sell you flood insurance if you’re not in a floodplain.”

Clean-up efforts continue in Woodhull, where state and local officials are assessing damages. (Jillian Forstadt/WSKG)

“These Boundaries Shift”

Flood insurance is required for homeowners who live in a place considered a high risk of flooding and take out federal home loans, including those located in zones with a severe flood risk of at least 1 percent annually, or 25 percent over a 30-year mortgage.

These zones are laid out in maps maintained by FEMA and indicate where homeowners must be insured. They are meant to be reassessed every five years, but Woodhull’s flood map has not been updated for three decades.

Jamie Vanucchi, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at Cornell University, studies flood mapping and said outdated maps make it harder for residents, insurers and governments to fully understand and prepare for an area’s risk, especially in a rapidly changing climate.*

“Those precipitation patterns change, and the interaction of those, too,” Vannuchi said. “What’s happening in the watershed in terms of land use and these precipitation patterns means that these boundaries shift.”

Urban development, farming and levees can all change a landscape, reshaping which households are at risk.

Updating maps to reflect these changes requires funding, although the money needed to do so regularly has been limited. Michael Foley, Risk Analysis Branch Chief for FEMA Region 2, which covers New York, said congressional funding for updates must be shared between all of the agency’s regions, as well as other priority projects like digitizing maps.

FEMA began the process to update Steuben County’s flood maps in partnership with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) around 2019. The agencies will use topographic data to get a general picture of the landscape and then move to individual floodplains and streams, but that process has been on pause while more data is captured.

Once the initial data gathering and modeling is complete, FEMA will share its conclusions with state and local officials to discuss any concerns and determine where more detailed research should occur.

Adapting To Climate Change

The product of this process will be useful to code enforcement agencies and developers, as well as homeowners looking to safeguard their homes from disasters.

Households without a flood policy can get individual disaster assistance in the event one occurs, but their payments will be lower than those who hold insurance. In addition, individual assistance will only be available if the federal government issues a disaster declaration for the area, which, as of Wednesday, it has yet to do for Steuben County.

“That’s where flood insurance needs to supplement those programs,” Foley said. “I cannot stress it enough, especially nowadays the way the weather is and the rainstorm events and the hurricanes.”

The current flood zones cover only slim portions of Woodhull and barely extend to any homes damaged in the recent floods. Tim Marshall, Director of Public Safety for Steuben County said few, if any, households in the area have flood insurance. Many lack protection policies for other natural disasters, like fires.

Approximately 30 homes in Woodhull were deemed uninhabitable after Tropical Storm Fred caused extensive flood damage. (Jillian Forstadt/WSKG)

There is no way to know whether new maps will expand Woodhull’s flood zones to the areas affected by Tropical Storm Fred. But Vannuchi, from Cornell, said better preparation for floods also requires changes to how flood risk is viewed.

“We want to have the control of saying, yes, I am safe now. I elevated my home, or I’m living outside the risk boundary, but that’s just not the way things work,” Vanucchi stressed.

Communities need to adapt to climate change and floods, Vanucchi said. That could begin with conversations about changing floodplains.

*Full disclosure: Cornell University is a WSKG underwriter.