'Changing' floodplain inflicts pain


In a year when consumers are being hit by out-of-control heating bills and a sagging economy, a number of Lucas County homeowners are receiving another blow when told they have to buy flood insurance.

Bob Nicholson of West Toledo is among them. When he bought his Castleton Avenue home in November, National City Mortgage and his appraiser told him he didn't need flood insurance.

Last week, he received a letter from National City Bank which approved his home equity loan, telling him he had 45 days to buy flood insurance. The cost is between $500 and $1,000 a year.

“I was mad,” he said “I was led to believe I was not in the floodplain.”

Mr. Nicholson is not alone. Letters from mortgage companies have arrived in mailboxes all over the county in the last few weeks. As a result, angry homeowners, faced with having to buy flood insurance, have called city and state officials looking for answers.

“There's been a gradual increase in calls,” says Frank Mortelli, senior engineer with the city of Toledo.

Consumers are calling officials like Mr. Mortelli because their mortgage companies said new Lucas County flood maps drawn up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency have determined that their homes are now in a floodplain.

The maps were last updated in the early 1980s, according to federal officials. The new survey was completed last year and went into effect Oct. 6. It took about five months for mortgage companies to notify customers of the changes, said Ken Hinterlong, senior civil engineer in FEMA's Chicago office.

He said the increase in the number of Lucas County homes considered in the floodplain is because sophisticated technology produces more accurate data and development is affecting the environment.

“Land-use changes have an impact on how run-off occurs,” he said. “More roof tops, driveways, roads, and parking lots can contribute to flooding.”

FEMA administers the country's national flood and insurance program. Any property that has a 1 percent chance of flooding during a storm that happens once in 100 years is considered in the floodplain.

But after reviewing the new maps and comparing them with the old ones, Mr. Mortelli has come to a conclusion that differs from Mr. Hinterlong's.

“The maps are identical. There's not one iota of difference,” he said.

A more plausible explanation for the sudden change in flood insurance requests by the mortgage companies has been a tightening of federal regulations, said Chad Berginnis, a floodplain management supervisor for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

After the record flooding of the Mississippi River in 1993, he said, authorities learned that many homeowners along the river lacked flood insurance, costing the government billions of dollars in aid. That resulted in Congress passing the National Flood Insurance Reform Act of 1994, which has forced mortgage companies to become more diligent in requiring customers to buy flood insurance.

“From the adaptation of that act we've seen a large increase in the number of flood insurance policies,” he said.

Mr. Berginnis said with lower interest rates, more homeowners are refinancing, causing mortgage companies to invoke the flood insurance clause in the new loans.