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FEMA takes county off probation

Federal officials Tuesday lifted Lawrence County’s probation with the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), saving homeowners a $50 insurance policy surcharge and easing concerns of commissioners who had sought the change for more than three years.

Wednesday, October 06, 1999

Federal officials Tuesday lifted Lawrence County’s probation with the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), saving homeowners a $50 insurance policy surcharge and easing concerns of commissioners who had sought the change for more than three years.

"This is real big, particularly when you consider we were facing the possibility of suspension in 1996 when they put us on the probation," commission president Bruce Trent said. "It shows since 1997 we’ve made great strides in awareness and regulation efforts."

It also means the county stands a better chance at receiving federal floodproofing grants and homeowners’ mortgages are better protected, he said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administers the NFIP, put Lawrence County on probation Oct. 3, 1996, after finding the county failed to enforce flood protection standards as required by the insurance program, FEMA Region V director Dale Shipley wrote in a letter to the county.

Each year, FEMA regulators visited the county, to check its progress, yet did not lift the probation.

A Sept. 7-9 tour this year raised county officials’ hopes that its aggressive regulatory program, permit process, floodplain violation notification system and prosecution of violators would finally convince FEMA otherwise – and it did, Trent said.

"They found an extraordinary amount of development taking place in the county and reported that it is being properly regulated," Shipley wrote. "Based upon their findings, I have decided to remove the ‘probationary status’ from Lawrence County."

U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland announced FEMA’s move to the press Tuesday, citing the county’s floodplain compliance efforts – specifically the Floodplain Management Program administered by the Ironton-Lawrence County Area Community Action Organization – as one of the biggest reasons for the probationary shift.

"They told me they were very pleased at what they saw when they were in Lawrence County," Strickland said. "Although there are still some violations that need to be dealt with, when those are addressed, they believed that Lawrence County would have a model program. They were very complimentary of Doug Cade and the county commissioners and the recent action they have taken."

Cade, floodplain management director, called FEMA’s decision a positive step.

"They have recognized this county is doing its best to manage floodplains and protect the public from future flood losses," Cade said, adding that FEMA’s goal is not to keep spending money for yearly flood recovery.

"And we will continue to strive to build the program," he said.

Lawrence County is not out of the woods yet, however. If floodplain regulation compliance falters, the county could be replaced on the probation list, Strickland said.

"I don’t think that would happen, though, because Mr. Shipley was very complementary," he said. "He said the county had made tremendous progress and was well on its way to becoming a model program. Yes, they need to resolve some of these past problems, but once those are taken care of, Lawrence County will have a model program. That’s something the county can be proud of."

Other than saving on insurance premiums, FEMA’s decision has little effect on current homeowners, commissioner George Patterson said.

"Apparently, they believe we’ve complied well enough with the regulations," Patterson said. "Still yet today, there are people who don’t know the federal government requires permits before they build nationwide we’ve got problems."

Shipley addressed that in his letter, reminding the county it has outstanding violations that must be addressed and remedied according to NFIP standards.

Trent agreed, adding that the county will continue its focus on increasing awareness that builders and homeowners must get construction permits if the property is within the floodplain.

And FEMA saw that during its latest visit to the county, he said.

"I did say, ‘Look at where we have come from and where we’re at today in respect to assisting people with the regulations and making sure they build safe,’" Trent said. "Sure, maybe the county didn’t have the best program before, but we have the best program now."

If the county had been taken off NFIP, known as suspension, there existed a possibility that lending institutions would have recalled mortgages or required private flood insurance, which is expensive and hard to get, he said.

And federal grant applications that might have been scored low because of the probationary status will now look better in Washington, D.C., he added.

The years leading to floodplain protection and regulation have not been easy, though behavior changes are evident on both sides now, Trent said.

The issue came to a head in 1996, when FEMA made a list of floodplain violations and required the county to enforce its codes.

Later, after the March 1997 flood and a round of public meetings and explanations by visiting FEMA staffers, some homeowners voluntarily made changes, while others complained that the county had no right to enforce codes it did not publicize.

Many homeowners claimed no permits were available until after the county first hired a floodplain manager in 1993, and they questioned county surveys and elevation requirements.

County leaders countered that they had no choice but to enforce local regulations or face cancellation of homeowners’ flood insurance throughout the county, saying FEMA specified how regulations would be written, and such action tied their hands.

Tribune staff writer Melissa Scott contributed to this report.