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Illinois Cities Challenge Flood Designation

EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. (CN) - Sixteen cities and three counties have challenged FEMA's 2007 decision to designate their area a high-risk flood hazard area. The local governments say the designation will drive residents out of the area, as many cannot afford the flood insurance the designation will require.

Madison County, Ill., the lead plaintiff, asked the Federal Court to block FEMA's findings. The group claims that FEMA's findings declaring much of the floodplain a special flood hazard area are wrong.

"Section 65.10 requires that levees have an additional height of 3 feet of freeboard above the elevation of the 100-year Base Flood at any particular point of a levee," the complaint states. "On information and belief, based on Corps analysis included in similar types of studies, the Corps misinterpreted this requirement in the 2007 Study, and assumed a hypothetical BFE 3 feet greater that the actual BFE for a 100-year flood. The Corps thus assumed a high-water event substantially higher than § 65.10 actually requires. This erroneous assumption makes it very likely that the Corps produced inaccurate and overstated estimates of seepage to determine compliance with §65.10 and protection from the 100-year event."

The group also claims FEMA failed to produce information that justifies its decision to deaccredit the levees; denied appeals of its decision; proceeded despite Corps of Engineers' reports that say the levees will "perform as expected;" and did not follow the law or its own regulations, which require consultations with local officials and notice to allow local officials to submit information about levee conditions before a decision.

The levees were built in the 1940s and 1950s and have never failed, even during the historic 1993 floods. The levees protect an area known as American Bottom, which is home to more than 150,000 people, more than 7,000 business and more than 50,000 jobs.

The group claims the special flood hazard designation would restrict development and could require property owners to buy high-priced flood insurance.

"After the proposed FIRMs become final, residents and businesses located in the American Bottoms area will be required to purchase flood insurance, at a total estimated annual cost in excess of $50,000,000," the complaint states. "Many of those residents and businesses cannot afford such costly insurance. A substantial number of the residents, likely more than half, cannot afford flood insurance and will be forced to seek some form of public assistance or face foreclosure of their property, further distressing their communities.

"In addition, new flood plain building code and land use restrictions will require onerous and expensive new building requirements, such as the substantial elevation of construction of any new or improved structures on substantial fill mounds, to raise the structures over the new BFEs, in some cases as much as 20 feet or more above surrounding ground. These requirements will halt private development in the American Bottoms and cripple community development plans; reduce employment; impair industry; and significantly depress land values, diminishing local tax revenues and the ability of local communities to provide essential public services."

The lead attorney is William Mudge, state's attorney for Madison County. Named as defendants are FEMA, FEMA Director W. Craig Fugate and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

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