October 26, 2021

What Cortland County’s flood map does, and doesn’t, show

Colin Spener/staff reporter

A truck travels recently on Route 11 parallel to the Tioughnioga River in Marathon. Areas near the river are flood-prone in the county’s flood map, but the maps are at least five years out of date.

Living across the street from the Tioughnioga River can be nerve wracking, said Kelly Barber, and she’s lived near the river in Marathon for more than 30 years, so she would know.

Her home, owned by her parents, is on Route 11 just a stone’s throw from the river, and a lot closer when it floods. That hasn’t happened since 2002, she said, but a good storm can bring back memories. That storm caused her parents to raise her family’s mobile home 4 feet from its base.

Barber’s home is inside a flood zone, an area determined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be at risk of flooding. The zones provide information to homeowners, real estate agents and developers.

But only if they’re up to date, especially in a world with a changing climate. They were last updated in 2010; they should have been updated in 2015.

“It might show a reasonable flood risk today, but since we don’t make those investment decisions with ramifications far into the future, the maps don’t really help us plan for a different climate,” said Sarah Pralle, an associate professor of political science at Syracuse University who studies climate change adaptation by looking at references like flood maps.

And with the risk of flooding expected to rise 45% by 2100, the risk will only increase.

The maps

Flood maps are broken down into 100- and 500-year flood zones, said Dan Dineen, the Cortland County director of planning. For 100-year flood zones, this means there is a 1% chance of flooding per year. For 500-year flood zones, this means there is a 0.2% chance of flooding per year.

The 100-year flood zones encompass most areas along the Tioughnioga River and through northern parts of the city of Cortland.

The map was last updated in 2010, Dineen said. It should have been updated five years ago, Pralle said, but Dineen said they remain “fairly accurate.”

Updating the maps is a long process. “It’s a matter of when they cycle back to New York state and if there are any major events that change the flood maps,” he said.

In the last 10 years, there haven’t been any of those events, Dineen said, although some came close. In 2011, Tropical Storm Lee dropped 12 inches of water on the Southern Tier and Central New York.

Schools were canceled for a day or two in Cortland because of flooded roads, but 7,300 buildings were damaged or destroyed downstream, in and near Binghamton. One death was reported and damage was estimated at $1 billion.

Information on flood zones is also used by the National Flood Insurance Program, which sets flood insurance premiums based on risk of flooding, according to FEMA.

The reality on homeowners

For people like Barber and Robert Bathrick, 69, who lives a few houses down from Barber, living in a flood zone is just life.

“This whole entire area is nothing but a flood plain,” Bathrick said.

Bathrick, who has only lived in his house for nine months, said that he didn’t buy flood insurance because of the cost — about $900 a year.

He was also skeptical of its worth. “What’s it going to do?” he said.

“It’s just another expense that affects a person’s ability to afford a property,” said Joanne Sweeney, the 2020 president for the Cortland County Board of Realtors.

For buyers, houses in flood zones can cause second thoughts because of the potential of having to pay flood insurance, she said. Likewise, this can create difficulties for sellers, too.

It all comes down to the individuals and the risks they’re willing to take.

“There’s just a lot of factors,” she said.

The changing world

While current or recent flood maps may work for developing and planning right now, they don’t replicate a world changing with the climate, Pralle said.

“These lines on the map are not communicating the risk accurately,” she said.

Pralle gave the example of Hurricane Harvey, which brought on tremendous damage and flooding to the Houston area in 2017. About half of all properties damaged during the flood were outside of Harris County’s flood zones.

She noted that part of the reason why the maps aren’t as effective as they could be is because of the lag in updating. Under FEMA statute, flood maps are supposed to be updated every five years, but tend to be updated later in reality.

Additionally, areas with higher populations tend to be updated first, leaving more rural areas like Cortland County to wait. A lack of federal funding doesn’t help either, she said.

The threat of climate change though furthers a need for accurate reporting of potential flood areas.

According to a report by FEMA, the risk of floods is predicted to increase 45% by the year 2100, with 70% of that risk attributed to climate change. This could mean an increase in flood insurance premiums from $3.2 billion in 2009, $5.4 billion in 2040 and $11.2 billion in 2100.

In anticipation for a changing world, Pralle recommended the following changes to flood maps:

Make mandatory future flood risks part of the maps.

Move away from 100- and 500-year zones to a structure-by-structure basis.

Additionally, she recommended that more benefits be created for flood insurance to help make it more affordable.

While flood maps tend to be used to assess risk, as people living in flood zones are supposed to have flood insurance, Pralle said more is at stake.

“When we look at flood maps now, the conversations are about the insurance cost,” Pralle said. Instead, “we have to get to the point where we talk about these things as risks and how to mitigate these things as well.”