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FEMA conducts flood study near Summerset, homeowners urged to buy insurance

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At least 45 lots in Summerset are likely located in a flood plain, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is now surveying the area.

Mayor Melanie Torno and the city council discussed the risk at a special Sept. 22 meeting after the community of around 2,500 and neighboring Piedmont were notified by FEMA of the flood-risk assessment and possible ramifications.

“We were under the impression they wanted to talk about the study they wanted to conduct on alluvial fans from Stagebarn Canyon and the water spreading in that direction,” she said. “When we got to the meeting, they informed us that change was coming and we needed to be prepared.”

Torno said the city did not know that parts of the Sun Valley Estates neighborhood could be classified as in a flood plain.

If FEMA finds sections of the neighborhood are at risk of 100-year and 500-year flood events, homeowners will be required to purchase flood insurance from the federal government.

Torno said Summerset, Piedmont and Meade County will hold joint meetings to discuss resources and when more information is made available.

“Really, right now we’re on a wait and see,” she said.

Torno said if the area is deemed to be in a flood plain, the city will have to change permitting and zoning ordinances. She said there are also two roads that lead out of Sun Valley Estates that could be in the flood zone. 

She said the city has worked with the Summerset Police Department on an alternative exit if needed and they’ve had discussions with the state Department of Transportation and will speak with Meade County about funding sources for a second exit.

Torno said there’s also a wastewater treatment plant that may be in the flood plain,

“We’re very cognizant of that,” she said. “We’re just making sure we’re doing what we can to ensure the wastewater treatment plant can operate as planned as it’s designed. For the rest of the utilities, we do not have any other information at this time to make any kind of adjustments or decisions regarding utilities.”

Torno said the city wanted residents to be aware of the situation right away and to be as transparent as possible. She said they will keep information updated on the city’s website and its Facebook page.

Phil Anderson, commission chair for Piedmont, said the city has prevented developers from building in the flood-risk area in the community of around 950.

“We stopped all buildings after we incorporated, but there was a lot done prior to Piedmont being incorporated,” he said. “We can’t go back and unbuild it.”

The city incorporated in August 2007 and elected its first town board in November 2007.

Anderson said much of the blame can be placed on Meade County for allowing development in the flood plain. He said a flood in 1907 was indicative of what could happen.

National Weather Service archives show severe flooding was reported then in Stagebarn Canyon and in the Little Elk and Elk Creek drainages. There was a peak flow of 16,000 feet cubed per second along Box Elder Creek.

“Everyone thinks growth is wonderful, but they don’t look at why they never built a house in an area for 80 years that we’ve been living in the Piedmont valley,” Anderson said. “The reason is because oldtimers knew the creek would flood. The new people in (government) don’t recognize that.”

Alluvial fan study

Margaret Doherty, Risk MAP Program Specialist with the Mitigation Division of FEMA, said the flood-risk study has been a project that predates her. Before Summerset incorporated in June 2005, the county requested a flood study that produced the 2018 U.S. Army Corp of Engineers Map.

The study was submitted to FEMA and the state asked the agency to perform an alluvial fan risk.

Doherty said the risk is where water is coming off of a mountain and reaches a flat area where flooding can fan out in several directions. The study will show the 100-year flood event, or the 1% chance the flood could occur per year, and the 500 year, or the 0.2% chance the flood could occur.

“The alluvial fan is the unique risk that it brings down not just water but mud and debris, often,” she said. “Those can come down at very high speeds if you have a big rain event up in the mountain, in the valleys. It zooms down and sort of goes in every direction.”

Doherty said the study will show depth and velocities as well and how fast the water paths could be. It will add information to the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers map.

She said the area could be a high-risk zone and hopes that the cities and counties would designate the areas as places where they wouldn’t want to build.

“You would want to leave (them) open or as open space or trails,” she said. “The big picture message is it is our intention to provide this risk assessment information to communities so that they don’t allow building in those zones, particularly the 1%, the 100 year, because that’s considered a high risk zone, so there shouldn’t be any structures there.”

She said the agency just received funds over the summer and hired an engineering firm. She said they kicked off the process with a recent virtual meeting with Summerset, Piedmont and Meade County and began surveying the area last week.

Doherty said the first step is to survey the area, which will provide engineers data to run a hydrology model. The model will allow engineers to run a rain event to see all the different parts of the watershed. Then they will do a hydraulic analysis to determine where the flow would go based on topography.

She said the results will be turned into a flood insurance rate map update. With each stage of the process, Doherty said FEMA will update the communities with the information, although it could be weeks to months apart.

Doherty said the study is on a fast timeline with final results in spring 2022.

Flood insurance

Diane Herrera, senior regional flood insurance liaison with FEMA Region 8 and the mitigation division, said the potential hazard could carry a mandatory insurance purchase for any loan that is made through a federal agency or a federally regulated lender. She said that would be for the life of the loan or as long as a property is in a special flood hazard area.

Herrera said lenders could also require flood insurance if a property is outside of the hazardous area, but it isn’t mandatory. She said that could be within a mortgage contract.

FEMA offers flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program, which has been in effect since 1968. There are 22,500 communities in the program.

“In exchange for participating in the program, we make flood insurance available to everybody within the community, both inside the high risk and outside the high risk area,” she said.

Herrera said flood insurance has to be purchased with an agent licensed in the state. There are 60 private carriers that have a financial agreement with FEMA. She said those carriers write their own policy, service clients and handle claims, but they’re backed by the flood insurance program and the federal government.

She said private companies have insurance available through their own rules and are regulated by state insurance departments.

“The risk is there right now even though we’ve not mapped that risk,” she said. “The risk for flooding is very real today, and they need to be thinking about flood insurance.”

— Contact Siandhara Bonnet at siandhara.bonnet@rapidcityjournal.com

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