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Murkowski pressures FEMA on flood maps

Posted: October 12, 2011 - 9:27pm  |  Updated: October 13, 2011 - 6:26am

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski on Wednesday tried to spur officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to address concerns about the agency’s new flood maps in Juneau.

At one point during a hearing, she used the term “bizarre” to describe the controversial new designations of which areas are likely to flood.

The exchange was before the U.S. Senate’s Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee.

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate acknowledged “challenges” in some of the ways it was dealing with local communities.

FEMA’s new flood maps were released earlier this year, redrawing the lines indicating which areas the agency’s consultants determined were at risk of flooding. That’s important to property owners, because lenders typically require pricey flood insurance for areas within the flood boundaries when they sell mortgages.

Most of the concerned property owners were in the Mendenhall Valley, though some Gold Creek property downtown was also affected.

After numerous Juneau property owners complained about their designations, the city sought a public hearing on the issue and hired a consultant to review the maps.

City Community Development Director Dale Pernula said the maps show the Mendenhall Mall to be within the flood plain, but Assemblymember Mal Menzies, an engineer, said the actual elevations of the mall were all above the flood plain.

“Some of what we saw was actually more than a little bit bizarre,” Murkowski told Fugate.

That’s when the administrator acknowledged the challenges the agency has in handling its community interactions.

Murkowski said when she raised concerns about what was going on in Juneau last spring, FEMA responded by providing information about its processes, but never told Juneau whether or not they’d be able to get their concerns addressed.

Fugate also said the agency recently added a new staff member to help communities’ understanding of what FEMA’s actions and processes are, but Murkowski said she’s also recently heard concerns similar to Juneau’s from Homer officials, and was concerned about how widespread the problems might be.

“It’s my understanding that the issue in Juneau has not yet been resolved in terms of inaccuracies,” she said.

Fugate said whenever greater risks are mapped than had previously been known there are concerns among property owners, but didn’t directly address the inaccuracy or the possible revisions questions.

“Now that this new problem has cropped up in Homer, I’d like to know that we’ve got some follow-through with your office,” she said.

Pernula said he’s hoping to hear back from federal officials about Juneau’s concerns this fall. The continued pressure from Murkowski to see the reviews get done could help move the process along, he said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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