LEWISBURG — Two Lewisburg properties purchased in the 1980s by Mike Molesevich were not included in a high-risk flood zone but both ended up there 36 years later when the floodplain map was updated.
“No flood insurance was required when I bought the properties because they weren’t in a high-risk area,” he said of the two St. Catherine and South Fourth Street homes.
The shifting landscape due to climate change has caused the floodplain maps of the mid-1970s to be updated about two years ago, said Andrew Stuhl, associate professor of environmental studies and sciences at Bucknell University.
The tragedy of the 1972 Hurricane Agnes flooding that claimed the lives of 50 people in Pennsylvania did provide beneficial information about protecting lives and property from destruction. The floodplain maps developed in the storm’s aftermath, said Stuhl, identify areas at risk of flooding which allows freedom of choice while protecting the citizenry and its property.
“People want to have the choice to live where they want, even if it puts them at greater risk,” said Stuhl, who said the floodplain mapping provides property owners the information they need about flood-prone areas. “Some would evacuate and some would stay and be more prepared.”
That’s important in a state with more than 86,000 miles of rivers, streams and creeks, second in the U.S. only to Alaska.
“More than one-third of structures in some communities are in the floodplain,” said Stuhl.
As Molesevich prepared to sell his two Lewisburg properties last year, which he had only recently had to cover with flood insurance of several thousand dollars a year, he decided to hire Meck-Tech, a Hummels Wharf engineering firm, to conduct a flood elevation survey to determine if the properties were in fact at risk of flooding and how much a prospective buyer might have to pay for flood insurance.
The survey — which can cost between $500 and $800 — determined the properties were out of the high-risk flood zone, making it easier to sell the homes.
“If (prospective buyers) needed a mortgage, that was one less cost they’d have,” Molesevich said, encouraging other property owners to “do your due diligence.”
Mech-Tech President Art Thomas has been hired to provide more flood elevation certificates in the past nine years since the passing of the Biggert-Waters Act, which in part greatly reduced government-subsidized flood insurance.
“From 1971 to 2013, elevation certificates were a petty nuisance” for the firm’s surveyors who only conducted a couple each year, Thomas said.
After the Biggert-Waters Act was approved in 2012, property owners realized they could save thousands of dollars if they could prove their land was not in a high-risk flood area.
“In some instances, the maps are erroneous,” said Thomas.
In the event surveyors determine a property is not in a high-risk flood zone, he said, they fill out a Letter of Map Amendment (LOMA) and submit it to FEMA for review. If the government agency agrees with the finding, it will issue a formal letter to the property owner which relieves them from paying the additional insurance.
Areas near flood-prone rivers are often well-established by the mapping, but Thomas said there are many unnamed tributaries and properties in rural areas that are not well mapped out.
The floodplain map has proven accurate in about 70 percent of the 150 flood elevation certifications Thomas’ firm has done in the past nine years.
Of the remaining 30 percent, he said, 10 percent of the properties have received a LOMA; 10 percent have had flood insurance reduced due to being less at risk of flooding and 10 percent have been found to be more at risk and had insurance costs increased.
Updating maps benefits Valley residents, taxpayersUpdating the floodplain map is necessary for saving lives and protecting taxpayers, said state Rep. Lynda Schlegel Culver.
“We need less people to build in the floodplain because, ultimately, there will come a day when you will flood,” she said. “If you want to live (in a flood-prone zone) you have to know what you’re getting into. Let’s face it, the Susquehanna Rivers is absolutely beautiful. (But if a natural disaster occurs) someone has to pay for it and it’s a safety issue.”
Residents living in the flood zone can take precautions, Molesevich said, such as keeping basements as empty as possible and having a plan in case of emergency.
He’s reminded about how devastating a flood can be by the marker noting how high the water during the March 19, 1936 flood inside the South Water Street, Lewisburg, home he lives in.
In the past two years, Stuhl has been speaking with many about the impact of Hurricane Agnes as the 50th anniversary of the June 2022 disaster nears.
“Not one person I’ve talked to isn’t worried about the next flood,” he said. “We can either choose to plan ahead by redrawing the maps or we don’t and deal with the consequences.”