Politics & Other Mistakes: Down in the flood

6 mins read

Al Diamon

A few years ago, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (motto: Cornsistently Rong Abowt Everyting) informed me I was buying a house in a flood zone. FEMA had a map that showed where the waters of the semi-mighty Carrabassett River had surged over its banks a decade or so earlier and inundated my property. As a result, no lender would give me a mortgage unless I bought flood insurance.

I didn’t want to.

Not because I’m a cheapskate. (Although there is some evidence to support that charge – see exhibit A: “cheesy lamp with Hooters decals on shade purchased at yard sale as birthday present for wife.”) 

Not because I’m a stubborn fool. (The existence of hundreds of obstinate columns notwithstanding.)

Not because I have a problem with authority. (Ask my jerk-brain editors if I have any trouble ignoring their stupid suggestions.)

The real reason I didn’t want to shell out hundreds of dollars for flood insurance involved the fact that the difference between the highest point the waters of the Carrabassett had ever reached and the spot where the house I was buying was perched on top of a steep hill was approximately 85 feet.

If a flood ever comes along that affects my land, I doubt anyone will be around to answer the phone at the insurance company. Or, for that matter, at FEMA.

Hello, Noah? Got an extra berth?

In the end, I paid a surveyor a substantial sum (no wonder I can’t afford decent gifts for my wife) to produce a mound of documents only slightly shorter than my hill. All this paperwork was intended to prove to FEMA that its map failed to take into account the minor matter of land elevation. After some months, a letter arrived from the agency informing me – well, perhaps “informing” is the wrong word, since it took a lawyer to translate the babble of bureaucratese, so let’s go with “reluctantly conceding” – that my house is less likely to be damaged in a flood than destroyed by a meteor from outer space.

Based upon my personal experience with FEMA’s methods of determining the probability a given area will be struck by disaster, I think I can be excused for expressing mild skepticism about the agency’s recent decision to reclassify the entire Portland waterfront as being in immediate danger of termination by tsunamis.

According to a story in the August 10 Portland Press Herald, FEMA has employed the latest technology to determine that “high-velocity water” (FEMA-speak for “big waves”) could strike the city’s wharves at any moment. As a result, no one will be allowed to build anything on the waterfront ever again, and repairs to existing buildings will be limited to a percentage of their assessed values as determined by a formula being administered by the same chuckleheads who handle the “cash for clunkers” rebates.

If this preposterous proposal holds up, Portland’s long seafaring history is over, done in not by declining fish stocks, fickle foreign-trade agreements, unstable oil prices or the cancellation of filming of the live-action SpongeBob SquarePants movie. What will have finished off nearly three centuries of maritime activity will be a federal agency’s inability to comprehend that in all that time, the harbor has survived every sort of oceanic upheaval with minimal structural damage.

While it’s true that patrons of waterfront watering holes have occasionally been forced to stand on the bars in those establishments to keep their drinks from being diluted by seawater, it’s also true that once the tide receded, happy hour resumed, with nothing more than a few soggy cocktail napkins to indicate anything untoward had occurred.

And most of those places could stand a good rinsing out from time to time, anyway.

Among the locations FEMA has determined are threatened by imminent destruction is Fort Gorges, the huge stone fortress at the harbor’s mouth. Gorges, built to withstand a possible Confederate bombardment of Portland, was completed just as the Civil War ended, so by now, it’s probably adequately demonstrated its durability. The rest of the waterfront may not have been constructed to the same exacting standards, but since when are exacting standards FEMA’s strong point?

In 2005, the agency chose Portland to store thousands of bags of ice intended to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. But did those victims take advantage of their government’s generosity? They did not. In the end, FEMA ran up storage bills totaling nearly $274,000 because people from New Orleans were too lazy to walk clear across the country for ice.

In 2006, some York County residents discovered another little issue with FEMA’s flood maps. Not only do they show flood zones where none exist, they also don’t indicate such zones where they do exist. This problem didn’t surface until Intervale Road in Kennebunk was underwater.

And where are the flood insurance policies those unfortunate Kennebunkers needed to restore their homes?
We’re keeping them high and dry in Carrabassett Valley.


Think I’m all wet? E-mail me at aldiamon@herniahill.net.

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