PORTLAND — Congress could force the Federal Emergency Management Agency to review its flood mapping models for the sheltered harbors that dominate much of the Maine coastline.

The provision, included in the Flood Insurance Reform Priorities Act, follows local concerns over the accuracy of FEMA’s newly proposed floodplain maps.

Earlier this week, several southern Maine communities met with agency officials to argue that the current mapping models are better applied to traditional sandy coastlines with direct exposure to the open ocean. Much of Maine’s coast, on the other hand, is protected by islands, inlets and harbors.

The directive would force FEMA to re-evaluate its mapping models and the feasibility of creating a “sheltered harbor” zone in future map updates. The provision, introduced by U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, was included in the House version of the flood insurance bill, which cleared the chamber Thursday by a vote of 239-182.

According to Wily Ritch, a spokesman for Pingree, the Senate is expected to vote on the bill sometime before Sept. 30, when a recent extension of the National Flood Insurance Program expires.

“The bill has broad bipartisan support,” Ritch said. “(Pingree) knows the importance of this issue, and she’s confident it will get through the Senate.”

Speaking from the House floor Thursday, Pingree highlighted concerns expressed by officials in York and Cumberland counties, where FEMA has unveiled a new floodplain. Several communities, including Portland, South Portland and Harpswell, have hired a consultant to refute the flood zone.

The communities argue that the agency’s proposed update doesn’t accurately reflect the likelihood of wave damage in a 100-year flood, and could potentially impede waterfront development and force homeowners to purchase costly flood insurance.

Pingree reiterated those arguments Thursday, highlighting FEMA’s recent decision to reconsider the floodplain for Portland Harbor after bring presented with evidence from a consultant hired by the city.

“Portland Harbor is not a barrier island nor is it a community built on shifting sand or even walled off from the sea by levees,” Pingree said. “Rather, Portland Harbor is a working, thriving waterfront that has endured for hundreds of years.”

“Our nation’s working waterfronts, like all of our communities, deserve to be mapped using the best science FEMA has available,” Pingree added. “Our nation’s waterfront businesses need accurate flood maps that don’t needlessly place our businesses in restrictive flood areas that stifle economic activity on the waterfront.”

The NFIP was established by Congress in 1968 to provide flood insurance to individuals and businesses located in flood areas and to counter unwise development in high-risk areas.

The NFIP is administered by FEMA, which is responsible for generating the floodplain maps.

Pingree acknowledged that FEMA might be correct in putting some properties at risk of being flooded or destroyed by a once-in-a-lifetime storm. However, she said, “sheltered harbors like Portland are protected” and don’t get battered by waves, even during a hurricane or nor’easter.

Even if it survives a vote in the Senate, Pingree’s proposal is only likely to impact FEMA’s next mapping update. However, it could strengthen the argument made by several communities that are planning to appeal portions of the agency’s maps this summer.

FEMA officials have acknowledged there might be errors in the maps, citing finite resources that limited the depth of modeling the agency used to predict areas at risk from waves generated by a hurricane or storms.

The federal officials said mapping data could have produced inaccuracies and welcomed additional information to correct them.

But the admission came after some towns and businesses have spent up to $17,000 for a consultant to appeal the proposed floodplain. Further, some local officials said they aren’t confident FEMA has the capacity to fully consider the updated data during a fast-approaching 90-day appeal period.

The appeal period initiates a series of rigid adoption steps that could force communities to agree to the maps by June 2011, or risk being kicked out of the National Flood Insurance Program.

FEMA officials have said the appeal period could start as soon as July 24.

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or [email protected]

Sidebar Elements

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, speaks on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives Thursday, July 15, on the reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program. Pingree pushed for an amendment that will review the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood mapping models, which are being contested by several southern Maine communities. The bill, H.R. 5114, passed the House and will now be taken up by the Senate. Video of Pingree’s testimony can be viewed at http://bit.ly/cdlm7v.

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