The majority of Alice residents could see a dramatic increase in insurance premiums if Jim Wells County’s San Diego Creek levee is not brought into compliance, according to county and city officials.
Alice City Manager Raynaldo De Los Santos Jr. said residents and businesses protected by the levee, about 70 to 80 percent of town, could see a call for mandatory flood insurance under the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).
“We need to figure out exactly where we’re going to be, in terms of who will be affected, at what level, if there’s not accreditation. But before that, we’re looking at the opportunity that may exist to hold on to accreditation or to receive a waiver for accreditation before we jump in to who will be affected,” De Los Santos said. “We need to put our plan in place, but first we need to figure out where we’re starting. We’re working to try and gather that information.”
De Los Santos, along with County Judge L. Arnoldo Saenz and other community officials, are attempting to get a list of levee requirements before accreditation can be reached. Both will participate in a phone conference with officials from either the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or FEMA on that issue this morning.
FEMA is currently compiling information for an updated Digital Flood Insurance Rate Map (DFIRM) of levees across the country.
According to a memo from FEMA Mitigation Division Director David Maurstad, without the proper levee documentation under NFIP regulations, an area situated behind the levee will be designated as a flood hazard area on the map.
According to an April 2007 FEMA fact sheet, areas behind accredited levees will be mapped as a moderate-risk area and will not be required to have flood insurance.
If the levee is not accredited, such as the case of the San Diego Creek levee, FEMA maps will show the area as a high flood risk, in which case flood insurance will be required.
In Alice, about 80 percent of homes and businesses would fall within that designation.
And, residents would be required to purchase flood insurance.
“It’s going to potentially be a substantial increase in our flood insurance if we cannot work the resolutions,” Alice City Councilman John Lemon said. “We can’t do anything without (the county’s) involvement, because they own it.”
The San Diego Creek levee runs three miles, from the Highway 281 relief route through the northern end of Alice.
Jim Wells County, which took responsibility for care and maintenance of the levee in 1955, has allocated $35,000 a year toward maintaining the levee and retention dam system.
In the last correspondence the county had with the army corps was in October 1986 stressing the need for maintenance of the levee structure.
Former Precinct 2 Commissioners Tommy Cornelius and Lawrence Cornelius and current Commissioner Ventura Garcia Jr. have been in charge of the levee, with revenues collected through a levee and dam fund.
Since 1986, there had been no inspection of the levee.
“There hadn’t been a great dialogue between the city and what was going on,” Lemon said. “The main issue here is not to blame.”
But at least one county official contends the government shouldn’t have ignored the levee for more than 20 years.
“I think they dropped the ball by not notifying us. That’s 22 years. Then right before the new FEMA maps come out, they say they want to come out and inspect our levee. Then they tell you, ‘you know what, you haven’t turned in any reports for the last 22 years, as per your agreement, and you didn’t do what your supposed to,’” County Judge Saenz said. “The city and county have cleaned it in the past; there is just one section that is overgrown. It’s been mowed and cleaned.”
Local businessman Newell Atkinson III said there may be hope.
“There is some information, that if it proves true, could show that houses here today will be grandfathered out of the situation,” he said.
“Certainly, new houses will be affected, but the area that is effected by the levee is not an area where there is many new houses. This is the most critical issue the town has faced in a long time.”
According to the FEMA, buildings that are grandfathered and already covered by flood insurance before the effective date of the new maps, can receive a more favorable insurance rate. Flood insurance will be required for structures with federally backed mortgages within a flood zone.
The City of Alice has pledged to assist the county.
“We’re going to get it done, with cooperation from the county,” De Los Santos said.
The county may seek a waiver in order to have more time to remedy the levee’s shortcomings.
“I just think we need to buckle up and fix the problem and get back to where we were and utilize the levee for what it was intended for,” Saenz said. “It’s no use pointing fingers, it won’t get the levee done any faster.”