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Monday, December 3, 2012

Why doesn’t Charlestown participate in FEMA’s Community Rating System?

The Cost - and savings of preparedness

Section of graphic from USA Today incorrectly showing Charlestown
(and Portsmouth) as part of the FEMA program. CLICK TO ENLARGE.
By Will Collette

In each of the past three years, we have been hit with major flooding events (the March rains in 2010, Irene last year and Sandy this year). Property damage costs have run into the millions locally and billions across the Northeast. Climatologists are telling us to get used to it, as global climate change will probably mean more severe and more frequent catastrophic weather events.

As the nation counted the toll from Sandy, USA Today ran an article describing an obscure but potentially important FEMA program, the Community Rating System (CRS), which provides communities prone to flooding with incentives to take proactive steps to reduce storm damage.

Under CRS, local government imposes requirements for flood- and storm-resistant construction, restricts development in flood-prone areas, creates disaster-response plans and programs, and educates homeowners about how to reduce flood-damage risk.

Depending on the quality and effectiveness of their program, communities then receive a CRS rating of 1 to 10. One is the best. Ten is the worst, although as a practical matter, communities get a rating of 9 simply by participating because they have usually done enough of the basics required under the program to score a discount (otherwise, what’s the point of participating?).

And with that rating of 9 comes a 5% discount on property owners’ flood insurance. The discounts can climb as high as 45% if the community has a particularly aggressive and effective program and earns the top score of 1.

In the USA Today article, North Kingstown, Portsmouth and Charlestown were listed as participating Rhode Island communities. North Kingstown received a score of 9 and their town manager, Mike Embury, was irate. Charlestown was ranked with a score of 8.

In a North Kingstown Patch interview, Embury railed at USA Today and at FEMA. He said that it was difficult to get a good rating under the FEMA program and that top-ranked municipalities (whose residents get a 45% discount) often have entire departments staffed with professionals devoted to emergency management.

USA Today, he said, published incorrect information, citing the fact that Portsmouth and Charlestown are not in the CRS program and thus should not have been listed. In fact, the other two participating RI municipalities, in addition to North Kingstown, are Narragansett and Middletown.

As much as I take some smug satisfaction in seeing a large national newspaper make such a gaffe, this exchange made me wonder why Charlestown doesn’t participate in CRS. If there’s one thing Charlestown’s leaders have made clear, it’s that we’re all about accommodating our coastal property owners.

These are, after all, the people who fund the Charlestown Citizens Alliance and RI Statewide Coalition, so why isn’t Charlestown participating in a program that would save them – and any other town resident who needs to buy flood insurance – the CRS discount?

Charlestown would start off with 167 points automatically because FEMA recognizes state regulations that apply to our flood-zone areas. To get to a rating of 9, we would need to accumulate 500 points by demonstrating that Charlestown is doing things off the menu of activities that earn points under the CRS program (click here for the list and point values).

If Charlestown was a CRS participant and had earned a rank of 8, as USA Today incorrectly reported, Charlestown property owners would get a 10% discount on flood insurance.

I asked Charlestown’s  Emergency Management chief, Kevin Gallup, about the CRS program and why Charlestown wasn’t in it.

Gallup said that Charlestown is already deep into carrying out many of the activities that would score points for the town, if we participated in the program. But, he noted, Charlestown needs to support and fund a floodplain manager before applying for admission to the program.

He said it was in the town’s interest to participate, not so much because of the discounts it would provide to coastal property owners, but to protect the town’s tax base. He noted that new coastal building codes are already starting to pay off. 

He said the newer structures built on 20-foot-high stilts suffered little or no damage from the storm surge, though he noted that he saw water come within two or three feet of the bottom of some of those buildings. He noted that the new ocean front building standards proved their worth.

It may cost the town some extra payroll money to add the responsibilities of floodplain manager to the duties of an existing staff member, but that should be more than offset by preventing losses to the tax base and in discounts to property owners. Not all of them are rich people from Connecticut.