Floodplain maps must be updated for Pittsburgh, Allegheny County

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Residents of Pittsburgh and 102 of Allegheny County’s 130 municipalities could lose affordable federal flood insurance coverage soon if local officials fail to adopt new floodplain maps in the next month.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administers the 46-year-old flood insurance program, the municipalities must approve ordinances endorsing the updated maps by Sept. 26 or face suspension from the program.

FEMA listed the Allegheny County municipalities in a notice published in the Federal Register on Monday. An additional 27 municipalities in Kentucky, California, Florida and Texas also were on the notice list.

The Federal Flood Insurance Program enables property owners to purchase flood insurance that is not generally available from private insurers, and at lower rates. But to qualify for the program, a municipality must adopt ordinances and enforce rules aimed at reducing flooding risks and floodplain property damage.

The required map ordinances are part of a 2½-year process to update old floodplain maps that has been proceeding, county by county, nationwide, said Peter Herrick, a FEMA Region III spokesman in Philadelphia. The agency regularly publishes Federal Register notices identifying municipalities in danger of suspension.

“A lot of counties around the nation are still operating off of old maps dating to the 1980s,” Mr. Herrick said. “Nationally, we’re in about the middle of the updates. It’s not uncommon for it to take a little while.”

In Pennsylvania there are 30 counties in various stages of mapping, reviewing or adopting map ordinances, he said. Allegheny County municipalities are nearing the end of that timeline.

“The notice is more of a record-keeping procedure, but it can cause problems if communities don’t get their ordinances adopted in time,” said Leslie Rhoads, who conducts municipal seminars around the state on the federal flood insurance program for the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

If a municipality is suspended from the federal program, its residents will not be able to buy new coverage or renew existing policies, she said, and it would not be eligible for federal disaster assistance if flooding occurred.

More than 2,500 municipalities in Pennsylvania are enrolled in the voluntary federal flood insurance program, and, Ms. Rhoads said, several have been suspended from the federal program for short periods for not meeting deadlines.

Federal flood insurance policies in Pennsylvania total 71,532, with 3,969 of those in Allegheny County and 480 in Pittsburgh.

Ms. Rhoads said she met with Allegheny County municipalities in May and all but two, Crafton and Clairton, have begun the process of updating their ordinances. Crafton has only two federal flood insurance policy holders and Clairton has three.

“Allegheny County is the biggest county in the state in terms of municipalities enrolled in the program and that makes me a little nervous,” she said. “A lot of them put off action and some ignored it, even though the state has made it easy on them by providing model ordinances they can adopt.”

Rich Lattanzi, Clairton’s mayor, said the city has been addressing higher-priority development issues recently but will begin the process of adopting the flood map this week.

Pittsburgh City Council held a meeting on an updated “flood plain overlay district” ordinance last month and a public hearing is scheduled for Thursday.

The ordinance creates special regulations intended to reduce property damage and hazards from flooding and updates the 10-year-old map to better reflect flooding risks for flood insurance purposes.

FEMA officials have also met with the city’s Bureau of Building Inspection to ensure compliance with federal regulations for issuing building permits in flood zones.

BBI Chief Maura Kennedy, who started this spring, said the last time the city was audited by FEMA was about 12 years ago.

“Basically it’s a gap assessment between what the city is doing and what FEMA standards are,” she said. “We’re working with FEMA to close the gaps in our permitting issues. We’ve already made the vast majority of the changes.”

Ms. Kennedy said the changes include requiring more documentation up front before issuing permits.

“We’re making sure we’re collecting all of that information at the start of the permitting process,” she said.

“No one should be at all worried that we’re losing flood insurance.”

Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983. Robert Zullo: rzullo@post-gazette.com, 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @rczullo.

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