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Floods are the most costly natural disaster. Officials want to help reduce your risk for it

Mount Vernon to seek public meeting with FEMA on preliminary flood maps

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An area along East Havens Avenue is shown during a widespread flooding event on Sept. 12, 2019 in Mitchell.
Mitchell Republic file photo
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MITCHELL — Officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency heard from local government officials Tuesday about their concerns with the latest iteration of the preliminary flood risk plan maps, which are in the process of being updated for the first time since 2012.

The discussion was part of the Flood Risk Consultation Coordination Officer meeting, which serves as an opportunity for the community to ask questions of FEMA regarding the new preliminary flood risk maps and learn about the National Flood Insurance Program.

“We’re here to talk about those preliminary maps and what that means for you as community officials and the ways you can engage with your public and what you can expect in the mapping process,” Madi Pluss, FEMA Region 8 Risk MAP program manager, told the assembled leaders Tuesday at the Davison County Fairgrounds.

The focus of the discussion was on the preliminary floodplain maps that were issued March 25. The preliminary maps are part of an overall multi-year project that will update the FEMA floodplain maps for 27 eastern South Dakota counties, including Davison County. The maps are important as they can impact flood insurance costs and which properties may be required to have it for home lending.

The process has been underway since 2016, when initial kickoff and discovery meetings were held. Over the following year, FEMA gathered and developed new data. In 2020, the organization reviewed the results of those mapping surveys with various communities at a flood risk review meeting.

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“We started this in 2016 working with the state, and we identified areas in South Dakota where (the current) maps needed to be updated. Some communities have very old, outdated paper maps, some communities are unmapped and with some there has been significant growth and development,” Pluss said. “And the topography changes. We have to come in and update your maps to better reflect the existing conditions.”

South Dakota has seen its fair share of flooding in recent years, Pluss said, including significant flooding in 2019.

“You guys have a lot of different flooding events, (such as) in 2019,” said Pluss, who operates out of Denver. “Even this year, we have 20 counties in South Dakota right now that are receiving federal support for a flooding event.”

Tom Birney, a member of the FEMA project team who specializes in floodplain management and insurance, said floods are the most potent form of natural disaster in the United States.

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Tom Birney, who works in floodplain management and insurance for FEMA Region 8, speaks at the Davison County Flood Risk Consultation Coordination Officer (CCO) Meeting Tuesday at the Davison County Fairgrounds.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic

“Flooding is the most costly natural disaster out there. If a structure is built to the minimum standards of the National Flood Insurance Program, it is 65% less likely to receive as much damage as those that aren’t,” Birney said. “That is a huge number. We’re talking $2.4 billion in savings nationally per year. So there is a huge benefit cost analysis-wise on why we have those maps to show what the risk is not just to the community, but to the residents.”

This latest review of the counties in question involved meeting with different community leaders to get their on-the-ground input about flooding in their communities and using on-site survey teams to look at the placement of structures like bridges and culverts.

A 90-day appeal and comment period, where communities and residents can request various degrees of change to the preliminary maps, is expected to get underway sometime this winter. That will be followed by issuances of final letters of determination and a six-month adoption period. The effective issuance of the new maps is slated for sometime in early 2024, Pluss said.

Mount Vernon officials seek public meeting

A handful of community officials were on hand at the Tuesday meeting, including Weston Frank, the mayor of Mount Vernon, and Dave Anderson, president of the Mount Vernon City Council. They were hoping for clarification on whether a flood control structure that diverts water around the community was assessed correctly when it was surveyed for the latest maps, which showed an increase in the number of Mount Vernon residents who would be reclassified as living in a flood plain.

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“There is a flood gate that diverts water around the city. What was the position of that flood gate with the new maps?” Anderson asked. “Because the new maps show almost a third of the town being added to the flood map.”

After some review by the FEMA officials in attendance, it was determined that the gate in question was assessed in both the open and closed position, and there wasn’t much difference in how it handled the level of flow that FEMA was concerned with. A solution may be to add another culvert of similar size.

Dave Anderson, president of the Mount Vernon City Council, speaks during the Davison County Flood Risk Consultation Coordination Officer meeting Tuesday at the Davison County Fairgrounds.
Dave Anderson, president of the Mount Vernon City Council, speaks during the Davison County Flood Risk Consultation Coordination Officer meeting Tuesday at the Davison County Fairgrounds.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic

“Unfortunately, I don’t think that culvert size is big enough to deter all the water around. It’s not big enough to convey the complete flow,” Pluss said. “If you maybe added, and you can work with an engineer to figure this out, but if you added potentially another culvert of the same size next to it (it would move enough water).”

Frank said that flood gate was put in as part of another FEMA mitigation project, so it seemed strange that it would not fall into compliance in this instance.

“It seems (odd) that FEMA would have put dollars toward the project if it wasn’t going to be sized adequately,” Frank said.

Both Anderson and Frank said they would like to have a public meeting held in Mount Vernon so affected residents could have their questions answered directly by representatives of the agency. Pluss said that was a possibility and would look into what could be done to hold such a meeting down the road.

Frank said Mount Vernon officials had to do their due diligence to make sure they could bring a clear picture of the situation back to the residents of their community.

“Ultimately, no matter what the situation is, we’re the ones who will feel the brunt of any anger. We have to be prepared and make sure we have tracked down and followed everything we can to say that, when we’re done, that we did everything we could to help them,” Frank said.

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Frank said adding another culvert would be considered an option should funding of such a project be available. He is also hopeful that a meeting with FEMA can be arranged to help get Mount Vernon residents the latest information on the situation.
“Depending on money, it would be a mitigation situation, and we would absolutely be open to that if funding is available. And people will have every chance to have their input heard,” Frank said.

Pluss and Birney said there are grant programs available that could potentially help with that type of mitigation effort.

“There are opportunities for mitigation, and we work with grant funding that FEMA can provide. We’re willing to work with the community to see what can we do, what funding can help you with this project,” Pluss said.

There is more to come from the process, but Pluss said it is important for South Dakota residents, especially those living within the counties included in this project, to take the dangers of flood seriously and to take the steps they can to mitigate their risk.

“The maps are new, but the risk is not. This is flood risk that we all live with. It’s impacting many residents of South Dakota across the state right now,” Pluss said. “It’s important to understand your risk. FEMA wants to partner with the community who are there day in and day out and make their community safer for residents.”

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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