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Clarify flood plain issues FEMA's reclassification of city zones needs explanation and reconsideration

The Federal Emergency Management Agency recently went on its version of a "listening tour" in South Buffalo. There's hope that it may have heard homeowners there who need relief from the prospect of paying hundreds of dollars in flood insurance they don't really need.

This issue has been brewing for years, as the agency insisted areas in South Buffalo run the risk of floodwaters rising toward levels no one has witnessed in recent, or even long, memory. Homeowners who have paid off their houses are fine -- for now. Flood insurance requirements apply only to those with mortgages or home improvement loans. But those wishing to sell their homes might have a harder time doing so, because a potential buyer needing a mortgage would have to incur insurance fees that can cost more than $800 a year.

At one point, it seemed FEMA was planning to do right by residents when it redrew flood zone maps for Buffalo. Getting the agency to do that took years of cajoling by all levels of elected leaders. And the redrawing did help, recognizing the unlikelihood of major flooding in a lot of areas.

But enthusiasm at the new 90 percent reduction in the amount of territory where insurance would be required on properties quickly gave way to an outcry, when it appeared FEMA had simply shifted the burden.

The Old First Ward received quite a wake-up call when residents discovered the new preliminary map calls for reclassifying some parts of the neighborhood as a higher-risk flood zone. Following that bit of news, FEMA held a meeting that fell short of mollifying several homeowners, many of them seniors.

As Common Council President David Franczyk said, the new preliminary map looks like a "mitten emanating from the Buffalo River into the heart of the Old First Ward," which previously was designated as a 500-year flood plain without negative insurance ramifications.

The core of the district now is classed as a 100-year flood plain, along with residual areas of Kaisertown and South Buffalo, meaning anyone with a mortgage or wishing to build a new home or business would have to incur the cost of expensive flood insurance mandated by FEMA. Sellers also would have the extra hurdle of convincing a potential buyer that the house is still worth the added price of flood insurance.

Franczyk, along with other local and federal officials -- including South Council Member Michael Kearns, Lovejoy Council Member Richard Fontana, Congressman Brian Higgins and Sen. Charles Schumer -- has had a difficult time discerning which homes are in or out of the flood plain. The City of Buffalo has hired a consultant to study the issue.

FEMA made a feeble attempt to assuage resident concerns at a meeting at a high school -- in Cheektowaga. Maps that would confuse an experienced cartographer were posted as examples of the preliminary plan.

Franczyk's resolution calling for the Common Council to oppose the inclusion of the Old First Ward in the 100-year flood plain should be considered. Meanwhile, FEMA should try hosting a meeting in the city, be it the Old First Ward or the Council's chambers. Currently, there are more questions than answers -- and residents, many of them on fixed incomes with little room for added expense, deserve at least clarity, and probably relief.

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