Virtually all Natomas homeowners will be required to purchase flood insurance beginning this November after the Federal Emergency Management Agency said the 50,000-acre area will soon be labelled as a special flood risk zone, FEMA officials announced Wednesday.
Under a remapping of flood hazards currently underway in the Natomas area, FEMA officials are expected to propose the entire basin be designated as a Special Flood Hazard Area, FEMA regional mitigation division director Sally Ziolkowski said.
When FEMA completes the new preliminary flood insurance rate maps and if it institutes the recommended guidelines, the order would mandate any federally-backed bank or lender to require property owners to purchase flood insurance.
The re-mapping is expected to be completed in April. After a period of review and public comment, the new maps could become effective as early as November.
"We and our federal, state and local partners believe that public safety and risk awareness are top priorities and everyone strongly encourages residents to purchase flood insurance," Ziolkowski said.
Last February, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency along California's levee system, a step that freed up about $103 million in federal money for repairs to 24 critical flood-prone sites. As part of the repair effort, FEMA undertook a full revision of flood maps for all areas not meeting 100-year flood protection standards.
Areas designated as SFHA zones have a one percent or greater chance of flooding in any given year and a greater than 25 percent chance that a home there will flood over the course of a standard 30-year home mortgage.
Despite the flood threat, Natomas residents have not been required to hold flood insurance. According to the state Department of Water Resources, 11 to 13 percent of Natomas homeowners currently have optional flood policies at a cost of around $317 a year for $250,000 coverage. However, with the new designation, insuring a Natomas home against flood damage is expected to rise to more than $1,000 annually, DWR engineer Ricardo Pineda said.
"We think the levees in Natomas are in pretty good shape, but they do not meet the requirments that the government has put forth," Pineda said.
Sacramento Mayor Heather Fargo said the FEMA announcement did not come as a shock to city leaders, although it did come earlier than many had anticipated.
In November, DWR warned Sacramento leaders to slow down development in Natomas due to the area's high flood risk.
In a letter sent to Fargo by DWR Director Lester Snow, Snow warned that despite $57 million spent to help shore up area levees, reaching full 100-year flood protection for 67,000 Natomas residents was still several years away and that additional measures were "imperative" to keeping people and property safe.
Fargo responded to the letter, saying the city was already doing some of DWR's recommendations for the Natomas area. She said first time homebuyers, people purchasing resale homes and renters are told about the flood danger when they decide to move to Natomas. Some developers are paying flood insurance premiums on new homes for two years, she said.
But Fargo wondered why the state is singling out Sacramento to halt development in Natomas. She pointed out state officials haven't stopped San Francisco from building on earthquake faults. She added building has continued in Sierra foothill communities that have a high fire danger.
Last July, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers withdrew its 1998 endorsement of levees protecting the Natomas area. Federal Emergency Management Agency certification of those findings allowed for looser building restrictions and lower insurance rates, fueling massive business and residential development in Natomas.
Crews have started work repairing trouble spots along 20 of the 26 miles of levees surrounding Natomas. It is expected to take the area three to five years to reach full 100-year flood protection at a cost of nearly $300 million, Pineda said.