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North La Crosse Flood Issues

North La Crosse Flood Issues
Public Informational Meeting

February 23, 2004
City Hall
La Crosse, Wisconsin

North La Crosse Floodplain Issues Meeting
Questions and Answers

The City received more than 50 questions regarding a variety of floodplain topics and issues for the north side. Every attempt has been made to address these questions as completely as possible. However, individual property owners should always confer with representatives from the City for property specific questions.

City Public Works / City Engineer Questions

1. How accurate is the measurement from Fire Hydrant to Fire Hydrant in measuring levels?

The City Engineering Department maintains a list of elevation benchmarks using the top of water hydrants throughout the City. Generally the elevations should be accurate within a few hundredths of a foot. It is possible there could be some errors, especially if a hydrant was replaced or moved and the Engineering Department was not notified, so it is always better to confirm elevations from more than one benchmark.

2. After Rose Street was raised this last time, due to high water, was a map revision done?

No, the raising of a portion of Rose Street improved the City’s flood protection system, but did not protect any area adequately to have that area removed from floodplain designation.

3. What would the cost be to have a new dike built to remove some homes from the Floodplain similar to what was done on the South Side?
The cost estimated in 1989 by the Corps of Engineers for a flood protection system was approximately $20 million. The cost today would undoubtedly be more. In addition to dikes, issues such as internal storm water drainage and pumping to handle rain water and seepage during a flood, and storm sewer gates to prevent flood waters from flowing backward through the dikes need to be adequately addressed before areas could be removed from floodplain designation.

4. Please discuss the City’s dike and levee system, including structures like Lang Drive and Rose Street.
The City’s dike system is intended to protect the North Side from flooding on the Black/Mississippi River and the La Crosse River. One series of dikes follow roughly along the east bank of the Black River from the La Crosse River upstream into Onalaska north of Lauderdale Place. The second series of dikes follows roughly along the northerly edge of the La Crosse River marsh, providing protection from La Crosse River floods and Mississippi River floods that back into the La Crosse River marsh. The dikes are not continuous. In some areas the ground is high enough so a dike is not needed. In some other locations roads and/or railroad tracks pass through dikes, and those gaps in the dikes need to be filled in each time a flood occurs.

Much of the dike system was built in 1965 as the flood waters were rising, and has not been substantially improved since then. None of the dikes, with the sole exception of River Valley Drive, meet minimum federal standards for flood control dikes. Most are too narrow and many are overgrown with trees. Narrow dikes can easily wash out during a flood. Trees can tip over in the saturated soil during a flood, and the exposed soil can then quickly be eroded away. Dead tree roots and rodent burrows can provide conduits through a dike that floodwater can start flowing through, and then quickly wash out surrounding soil. In 2001 there was significant seepage through the dikes in several areas, and in two areas in particular the stability of the dikes was threatened by the water pressure. In both cases additional fill was quickly placed and the dikes held. In another instance a flap gate on the discharge end of a storm sewer was temporarily blocked open by some object under the water, but we were luckily able to clear the obstruction before any significant flooding could occur. Successful flood fighting efforts should not give the residents of the North Side a false sense of security, and they should always remain aware that these dikes provide a relatively tenuous and fragile line of protection during significant floods.

The City has approved funds to obtain easements for dikes on private property. Our plan is to improve the dikes with existing city staff over a period of years once the easements are obtained. (See also, answer to Question 10)

Incidentally, Lang Drive does not serve as a flood dike. When Lang Drive was reconstructed and raised following the 1978 flood the bridge opening at the La Crosse River was enlarged so Lang Drive would not act like a dam and increase upstream flooding.

5. Please describe how the proposed Moore Street lift station will address some of the seepage problems.
The City approved $600,000 in the 2004 Capital Improvement Budget plus $100,000 in previous years to purchase property and design and build a storm water pumping station near Moore and Rose Streets. This station will help reduce the frequent street and intersection flooding that occurs in portions of the North Side. It will also help greatly during floods in pumping water out of the storm sewer system into the river. This is important because much of the North Side is below the level of the river during a flood, so seepage and rainwater cannot flow by gravity and need to be pumped to prevent flooding. The station will likely not be completed until 2005. The station will not reduce seepage into basements.

6. When was the last 100 year flood? 500 year flood?
The flood in 1965 was of the magnitude that can be expected on average, once in 170 years. That is the highest recorded flood in La Crosse, and no other recorded floods have been of the magnitude of a "100 year" flood. The 2001 flood was approximately a "50 year" flood. However this terminology is dangerous to use. What is commonly referred to as a "100 year" flood is really a flood that has a 1% chance, or 1 chance in 100 of occurring in any given year. It is possible to have "100 year" floods three years in a row, or even three "100 year" floods in the same year. For example, 3 of the 7 highest floods in La Crosse’s history occurred during a four year period from 1965 to 1969. Three of the ten highest floods occurred during an 8 year period from 1993 through 2001.

In the one per cent annual chance floodplain (the so-called "100-year" or base flood or regional flood or Special Flood hazard area), the risk of having a flood is 26% over 30 years, the typical home mortgage term. State wide, only about 10% of the principal structures in the floodplain have flood insurance.

Over the life of that same 30-year mortgage, the risk of fire is only 1%. What percent of buildings have fire insurance, even after the mortgage is paid off? In the 1% annual chance floodplain, the flood risk is 26 times the risk of fire over 30 years.

Those are the statistical facts. Everyone is at risk of flooding, just as we all are at risk of fire. But the flood risk is the greater likelihood, and we should respond to that just as we respond to the fire risk, by recognizing it and mitigating it.

7. What is currently being done to help the homes in the floodplain on the North side?
The two most significant projects underway involve improving the flood control dikes and improving storm water pumping capacity on the North Side.

The City is in the process of obtaining easements for flood dikes so the dikes can be improved to provide a greater level of security for North Side residents. Surveys have been done and legal descriptions written for most of the dikes, and a number of appraisals have been completed. Purchase of easements should begin in the near future.

Funds have been approved for a new storm water pumping station to help protect portions of the North Side from flooding both during Mississippi River floods and during intense thunderstorms.

Several other projects have been completed recently to improve flood protection and storm water handling on the North Side. A larger storm sewer was installed on upper George Street in 2002 to help alleviate frequent street flooding in that area. A portion of Rose Street has been raised to provide improved flood protection. A new flood gate was installed at the west end of Rublee Street to prevent floodwaters from flowing backwards into the North Side through a large storm sewer. A new portable storm water pump was purchased to improve emergency pumping capacity and reliability.

8. What is the applicable Regional Flood Elevation?

The applicable regional flood elevation varies depending upon where you are located. The flood elevations increase as you move upstream. Some examples, given in 1929 USGS datum, are:
  • Isle La Plume 642
  • Oktoberfest Grounds 644
  • Wall Street (Copeland Park) 645
  • Lauderdale Place 646
The Flood Insurance Rate Maps prepared by FEMA show the official Regional Flood Elevations. Copies of these maps can be viewed in the Buildings and Inspections Department, the Public Works Department, the Engineering Department, and the Planning Department. FEMA is currently in the process of updating these maps, but that project did not include changes to flood elevations along the Black or Mississippi River adjacent to the North Side.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently near completion of a major study that will establish new flood elevations along the Upper Mississippi River. We have been told the changes in the La Crosse area will be very small, a few tenths of a foot or less.

9. How has the emergency vehicle helped properties in the floodplain, particularly with building issues and providing a dry land access?

Permits can be obtained for building in the flood fringe (not the floodway, or high current areas) if the building and the ground around the building are raised to appropriate elevations above the flood elevation. However such construction is only allowed if the area is accessible by “dry land access” during a flood. Wisconsin Administrative Code NR 116.03 (10) states that "dryland access means a vehicular access route which is above the regional flood elevation and which connects land located in the floodplain to land outside the floodplain.”

In 2001 the City purchased an army surplus vehicle capable of driving through water up to five feet deep to rescue people stranded by flood waters, and documented that capability to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. This vehicle allows the City to define properties as having “dry land access” if a route exists to the property that is not more than 5 feet below flood elevation.

10. Is there a long range plan for improving and developing the north side fringe flood plain areas?

There is a plan for improving flood protection for the North Side. It is not yet clear if it will be possible to remove any significant areas from floodplain designation.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers evaluated a flood protection system for the North Side in 1988, and determined the benefit/cost ratio for the project was 0.64, considerably less than 1.0, meaning the costs were greater than the benefits. Federal projects can proceed only if the benefits of the project are greater than the costs.

There was communication between the City and Corps of Engineers in 1989 indicating the project could be re-evaluated if the City made significant flood protection improvements, which would reduce the cost of the overall project, therefore improving the cost-benefit ratio.

It is our hope that the City can improve both the dikes and the pumping capacity over time to a point where the benefit/cost ratio reaches 1.0. The dike and pumping improvements will improve flood protection even if they do not result in a project that will remove areas from floodplain designation, so it makes sense to proceed with these projects. If these projects make it possible to proceed with a federal flood control project, then some areas could be removed from floodplain designation.

When we think we are close to a point where benefits may equal costs, the City will again request that the Corps of Engineers evaluate the feasibility of a flood protection project for the North Side.

11. What is the projected flow rate of flood water in the fringe flood zone if the dikes should fail? Would that flow rate be strong enough to move homes off their foundations?

The depth and velocity of flood water in any given area is almost impossible to predict, since it depends on the river elevation, the location of the dike failure, the magnitude of the dike failure, and the elevation and topography of the land around the dike failure. In the area near the dike failure high velocities could be expected, strong enough to wash buildings off their foundations.

It is important to note that the presence of the dike system actually increases the risk of high velocity flood flows. The Mississippi River, even during a major flood, rises relatively gradually, and there is warning days in advance of projected flood levels. The rate of rise is usually not much more than a foot in 24 hours. If the river reaches a high stage, and a dike then fails, the resulting onrush of water can have much higher velocities and be much more dangerous than if the dikes had not been present. Areas inside the dikes could flood several feet deep in a few minutes. The dike system has prevented untold flood damage since 1965, but a dike system can actually result in increased risk and damage if a dike should fail.

City Attorney and Building and Inspections Questions

12. What is the Slaback amendment and how/where does it apply?

Councilman Slaback introduced a resolution which was adopted by the Council in order to allow the construction of residential accessory structures at two feet below the Base Flood Elevation (BFE) if all electrical, etc. is placed at two feet above the Base Flood Elevation.

13. Why were/are some properties allowed to build garages while others were/are not?

National Flood Insurance Program (Federal): There is no distinction between principal structure construction and accessory structure construction in the floodplain. All new buildings must be protected from the base ("100-year") flood*, either by elevation (residences) or by elevation or structural dry floodproofing (non-residential structures). Dry floodproofing means an engineer or architect certifies that the structure resists the base flood and will remain dry inside if the base flood touches it outside (44 CFR 60.3). Also, and very importantly, 44 CFR 60.1 states that these requirements are the minimum requirements, and where a state or local regulation is more restrictive, those shall apply. Therefore, the more restrictive requirements of the DNR and the City are the minimum federal requirements.

*In July 1977, the Federal Insurance Administrator issued a Notice stating that when an accessory structure represents "a minimal investment" and the structure is clearly accessory to the principal residential structure on an existing platted lot of record essentially surrounded by similar structures and uses, the minimum building protection standards of 44 CFR 60.3 need not be met provided the accessory structure is not used for human habitation; it is designed to have low flood damage potential; it shall be constructed and placed on the site so as to offer the minimum resistance to the flow of floodwaters; it shall be firmly anchored to prevent flotation and damage to other structures; is used for the storage of vehicles and the usual equipment normally found in residential garages and the structure houses no other use or purpose such as workshops or darkrooms; and all service facilities such as electrical and heating shall be elevated or floodproofed. A community should adopt this accessory structure exemption language in their ordinance, if they so choose, and not issue variances to accessory structures. It should also be noted that if a separate flood insurance policy is written on the accessory structure constructed under these guidelines, the cost will be much higher than it would be if the structure were correctly elevated or floodproofed according to code.

NR 116, Wisconsin Natural Resources Commission Administrative Rule (State): Accessory structures or uses not connected to a principal structure and outside the floodway shall be constructed with its lowest floor no more than two feet below the regional flood elevation (see also the “Slaback Rule”), subject to flood velocities of no more than two feet per second, shall not be designed for human habitation, do not have a high flood damage potential, are placed on the building site so as minimize obstruction to floodwaters, have the building's long axis parallel to the flow and on the same building line as adjoining structures, be properly anchored, and have all service facilities at or above the flood protection elevation (NR 116).

City of La Crosse Zoning Ordinance (Local): An accessory structure or use as defined in Section 15.01 not connected to a principle structure, including non-residential agricultural structures, shall meet all of the applicable provisions of this code and (6) below. An accessory structure or use which meets these criteria and the criteria in Paragraph (4) may be constructed at elevations lower than the flood protection elevation provided that the structure in not inundated to a depth greater than 2 feet or subjected to flood velocities greater than 2 feet per second during the regional flood. City of La Crosse Zoning Ordinance, Chapter 15, Zoning, Section 15.20.

Section 15.01 defines Accessory Use or Building as "a subordinate use or building or portion of the main building, the use of which is purely incidental to that of the main building". Section 15.20 (6) states "Storage Materials: Material that are buoyant, flammable, explosive, or which in times of flooding, could be injurious to humans, animal, or plant life, shall be stored at or above the flood protection elevation or floodproofed in compliance with the provisions of this ordinance".

14. What are the criteria for building garages and adding to homes that are located within the floodplain? Can people build “car ports” and other non-enclosed structures?

See answer to Question #13.

15. What is the 50/50 rule? (50%)

The 50% Rule is as follows:

State Law states that no modifications or additions can be made, which over the life of the building, would exceed 50% of the present value of the building unless the entire building is brought into compliance. (Lowest floor of entire building must be at the Flood Protection Elevation (FPE), except basement or crawlspace floor, which can be at the Base Flood Elevation).

The City’s ordinance states that no modifications or additions can be made, which over the life of the building, would exceed 50% of the present value of the building – unless the entire building is brought into compliance (Lowest floor at Flood Protection Elevation).

16. How can the City construct enclosed structures in the floodplain, i.e. the City park shelter next to the Shopko Park (Badger-Hickey Park) and the Log Cabin in Copeland Park (also Goose Green?)?

The Log Cabin is out of the floodplain, while much of Copeland Park is within the floodplain. The structure at Badger Hickey Park (and Goose Green) is accessory to open-space use, and is outside of the floodway. Therefore, this structure does not disrupt floodwater conveyance. Further clarification is being sought from the DNR. In floodway areas, certain structures that are accessory to open-space uses (parks, recreational areas, campgrounds) can be built if they don't obstruct flood flows and aren't susceptible to high flood damages. Generally, only open-sided structures, such as picnic shelters or gazebos can be built, along with parking areas, sports facilities (tennis courts, baseball diamonds) with breakaway fences and similar uses. Bathroom facilities associated with recreational areas can also be permitted if they are properly flood proofed and meet the standards of COMM 83.

In flood fringe areas, there are no specific exemptions for structures accessory to open-space uses; such structures would have to meet the 2 foot depth/2 feet per second velocity standard.

17. What has the City of La Crosse done, or plan to do, to relieve the suffering of taxpayers who live in flood zones?

This question is generally answered throughout the entire document. Specifically questions 9 and 10 address previous and current efforts to reduce flood hazards on the north side. To be honest the City may never be able to remove areas on the north side from the floodplain now or in the foreseeable future. One way the City can assist the north side is to better comply with the Federal, State, and City regulations to assure flood risks are not increased, and flood insurance premiums are as low as possible. The City has already taken steps to do so.

FEMA Questions

18. How many revisions have been done for the north side of La Crosse that were not on an individual basis?

Although not specified, it is assumed that the question is referencing the Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM) revisions. See answer to Question #8 (repeated here). FEMA is currently in the process of updating these maps, but that project did not include changes to flood elevations along the Black or Mississippi River adjacent to the North Side.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently near completion of a major study that will establish new flood elevations along the Upper Mississippi River. We have been told the changes in the La Crosse area will be very small, a few tenths of a foot or less.

19. Many improvements have been done on the north side since the Army Corps of Engineers drew up the potential flooding areas, yet the floodplain area appears to be the same as when it was drawn in 1968. Why?

Most of the area was essentially established before 1968 (rivers, buildings, road network, etc.). Because of this, improvements have resulted in only minor changes.

20. What can be done, to resolve the problems of taxpayers wanting to build garages and decks that are not attached to their homes in the floodplain? You and I know they are not going to float away?

To change the floodplain map, three things can be done: raise the ground, lower the Base Flood Elevation (BFE), or keep water away with structural flood control projects. This is a flood prone area. The regulations are there for a reason. No one is going to condone lowering the standards.

21. FEMA came in to Wausau a few years ago, and did a complete revision without any costs to the city or taxpayers. Many homes on the North Side of La Crosse have never had water in their basements. What can be done to make some changes?

It depends on what you want changed. Changes tend to be expensive and impractical. Relaxing the regulations is not an option – they are there for your protection. Just because they haven’t had water yet doesn’t mean they won’t. See also answer to Question #8.

22. When was the last time FEMA came to the North Side of La Crosse and made changes to the Floodplain?

There have been changes made in the City, but it has been a long time since changes were made for the North Side. Changes made to the South Side were more feasible (Pammel Creek, Ebner Coulee). There don’t appear to be feasible projects for the North Side. The North Side has been lucky. When levies do fail, the damage increases exponentially. See also answer to Question #8.

23. Does this FEMA code apply to anywhere in La Crosse? NR116 Title 44 Chapter 1 Part 60 Subpart A Sec. 60.6

Wisconsin's floodplain management program, of which Chapter NR 116 is a key component, dates from the passage of the state Water Resources Act of 1965 and the federal National Flood Insurance Program Act of 1968. Both pieces of legislation were passed, in part, in response to the devastating 1965 Mississippi River flood.

The City applied several years ago for a basement exception, but it was not granted because the basement exception must apply to the entire community. The City has several types of floodplains, such as Pammel Creek, Ebner Coulee, the La Crosse River, and the Mississippi/Black River floodplain. The north side is part of the Mississippi/Black River Floodplain, and a basement exception is not available for just the north side.

24. The cost of flood insurance and whether it is required for the replacement value of the home or just the mortgage amount. Can the City withdraw from the National Flood Insurance program?

The law requires flood insurance in the amount of the outstanding loan balance (minus land value if any) but lenders may at their option require insurance to value or replacement cost; yes the City can withdraw from the NFIP at any time. State rules would still apply, and regulations would remain, but flood insurance and federally assisted loans and grants in the floodplain would be unavailable.

25. What about the City being self-insured for floods?

Self insurance means there is no insurance...the taxpayers pay; it is common for government to self insure; but in the case of federal flood disaster assistance, self insurance of insurable structures will penalize the City. FEMA will deduct the amount of flood insurance the City could (and should) have purchased on a structure from the amount of Public Assistance monies it is eligible for (1988 amendments to the Disaster Relief Act). This could be up to $500,000 per building.

26. What needs to be done in order to change the Base Flood Elevation?

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently finalizing a study of flood frequency and flood elevations for the Upper Mississippi River. The results aren’t much different than the 1968 model. The Mississippi River doesn’t change much, at most a few tenths of a foot in the La Crosse area (the tributaries change more so). See also answer to Question #20.

27. Is the City of La Crosse going to get a floodplain map revision?

La Crosse recently received drafts of revised Flood Insurance Rate Maps. Those maps contained some errors, and the City has asked that they be corrected. The maps do not make any significant changes in the floodplain on the North Side. There is almost no change with the new model. The most important thing is to know the elevation of your lot. The flood profile governs, not the map (for permits).

28. Will the La Crosse River Floodplain Study affect any homes on the Northside? Will any homes come out of the floodplain?

The La Crosse River floodplain study can be used to redraw the floodplain map if accepted by DNR and FEMA, after the City asks DNR and FEMA. It appears, however, that no homes will be affected. Most changes are between Gillette Street and Hwy 16.

29. Can any of the flood insurance money La Crosse residents have paid in come back to us (in the form of a loan, or a grant) to help with floodplain issues?

Flood insurance premiums go into the National Flood Insurance Fund to pay claims and program operating expenses (my salary, this trip, etc) and can not be co-mingled by law. Currently there is a $500,000,000 balance, but one hurricane or tropical storm can deplete it and we have to borrow money from the U.S. Treasury and pay it back with interest. Tropical Storm Alison was the most expensive event in NFIP history. We depleted the fund and had to borrow an additional $600,000,000 to pay claims. Grants and loans to do good stuff in the floodplain are available from FEMA and DEM for pre-Disaster mitigation, Hazard Mitigation Grants, etc. from a separate fund. FEMA will not grant flood hazard reduction money to a community to correct violations it should have never permitted in the first place. If there are frequently flood damaged structures that were built before the regulations were adopted, that is a different story, eligibility- wise.

30. Where does all the money go that we pay in to the NFIP?

The National Flood Insurance Fund collects the premiums, just like your insurance company does. Your insurance company pays claims and agents' commissions and overhead with your premiums. But they can invest the money. We can’t.

31. Why doesn't the NFIP cover seepage into basements?

The Standard Flood Insurance Policy typically does not cover seepage into basements because seepage is not a "flood" as defined in the policy. Flood is SURFACE water causing the damage, not high groundwater or foundation cracks or something not a "flood". If it can be shown that a flood caused the seepage and the flood occurred at the same time and was touching the structure (although not necessarily entering it thru doors), it CAN be a payable claim. Adjuster’s call.

32. Is there any way to build a garage that would meet FEMA standards other than building on an earth mound?

No. FEMA minimum rules would permit it, but the State and City regulations are both more strict. The City must enforce the more restrictive rule, and as such, the more restrictive rule becomes the minimum Federal rule. For more information, see FEMA’s fact sheet, titled “What are the floodplain rules regarding construction of accessory structures such as detached garages and storage sheds?” for Federal, State, and Local regulations.

33. Are there limits to size and elevations of storage sheds in a flood area; what are they?

FEMA has no rules but has guidance suggesting that as long as the accessory building is no more than 400 square feet AND less than some reasonable value, such as $5,000-$8,000, it qualifies to be considered for the so-called “wet-floodproofing exception”, should a community wish to permit them. In Wisconsin and in La Crosse, this is not an option where flood depths are greater than two feet.

34. How can I receive a copy of my flood insurance policy which lists exactly what is and is not covered in a flood?

You can get a copy of your flood insurance policy from your insurance agent. They are there to serve you.

35. Where can I obtain information telling elevations of my property?

The best way is to have a survey done by a Registered Land Surveyor or Professional Engineer using benchmarks. See also answer to Question #1.

36. When was the last detailed survey done on the north La Crosse Flood zone?

Although not specified, it is assumed that the question refers to an elevation survey. See answer to Question #42 (repeated here). The City has provided FEMA with more accurate topographic information based on aerial photography taken in the year 2000 for consideration in the Flood Insurance Rate Maps currently being prepared.

37. Are there any plans to due such a survey?

See answer to previous question.

38. What will be done with the dozens of structures which have been built in the flood zones that do not conform to FEMA standards?

The goal is to remediate and mitigate to bring things into maximum practicable compliance. The flood insurance rates in the City are cheaper now because the City has been doing a good job of enforcing its rules. FEMA will ask for an inventory of violations, and go through permit files to develop a remediation plan. Everybody but the DNR and FEMA will pay.

39. Are there any State, Federal or FEMA funds that could be applied for?

See answer to Question #29.

40. Are we reasonably safe from flooding? If so, we should be able to improve our homes and assume financial and safety responsibility for it, just as we do in all other aspects of our lives.

Reasonably safe from flooding is only the first, and most basic, requirement for permitted NEW CONSTRUCTION in the floodplain; it is not the test for getting a permit to build. We may assume financial and safety responsibility in the conduct of our lives (not everyone does however) but that entails getting required building, plumbing, electrical, etc. permits so our community can approve and inspect our work so it is consistent with codes and we and our neighbors and any emergency responders are safe.

Successful flood fighting efforts should not give the residents of the North Side a false sense of security, and they should always remain aware that these dikes provide a relatively tenuous and fragile line of protection during significant floods. (Repeated from answer to Question #4).

In general, less is known about many of the older structures that were built before the regulations went into effect, but many of them are probably not safe from flooding.

41. What can all of us present do to implement changes in the fringe flood plain regulations so that we, and others in our situation, can continue to improve the quality of our lives in our own homes?

Encouraging even more floodplain regulations will enhance the neighborhood in the long run; and reduce flood insurance costs. The area WILL get flooded eventually, and then the costs will be extraordinary unless the regulations are adhered to. Relaxing them will only hurt in the long run. Fire risk is only a fraction of the flood risk but I don’t hear people arguing to lower the fire code rules.

42. Are all the base flood elevations on the Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM) for La Crosse based on all of these pieces of information, and if not, what are they based on?

See the Flood Insurance Study (FIS). Flood Insurance Rate Maps are based on the best information available when the maps are created. The City has provided FEMA with more accurate topographic information based on aerial photography taken in the year 2000 for consideration in the Flood Insurance Rate Maps currently being prepared.

43. Are the elevations of the north side of La Crosse based on the antiquated techniques that understate actual existing flood hazards or have they been updated? If so, when and what techniques were used to update the elevations?

Models use a number of factors, including elevations, anecdotal evidence, etc. The elevations have been verified to be accurate, and the models don’t show much difference for Base Flood Elevations.

44. How do you define reasonably safe from flooding?

See answer to Question #4 and #40. Successful flood fighting efforts should not give the residents of the North Side a false sense of security, and they should always remain aware that these dikes provide a relatively tenuous and fragile line of protection during significant floods. (Repeated from answer to Question #4).

45. Can existing structures be considered as being “reasonably” safe?

No, existing structures (pre-FIRM) have not been reviewed for flooding.

46. Isn’t there a way that a garage could be built on an existing site that would not cause hardship to the homeowner?

FEMA regulations allow it but state and local regulations do not, so the answer is no, unless the community grants variances, which are discouraged.

47. What does the City of La Crosse need to do to get its floodproofing systems up to FEMA’s standards?

A public flood control project would have to be financed, built, operated, and maintained which meets the criteria at 44 CFR 65.10 for a creditable flood control project to “remove” the flood hazard designation.

This would include major improvements to dikes, improved storm water pumping capacity, including extra pumps and stand by power, improvements to the storm sewer system, and improved storm sewer gates to prevent “back flow” during a flood. A management plan to assure the flood protection system is properly monitored and maintained would also need to be created and implemented.

48. If we meet the criteria that provides protection from the one -percent-annual chance of flooding, can we get the properties removed and what expense?

Yes, the property could be removed. Don’t know what the expense would be.

49. How many losses since the start of the NFIP have taken place in the City of La Crosse, and at what expense?

Wisconsin has had over $1.5 billion dollars in flood damages in the past 14 years and has received 24 federal disaster declarations. FEMA encourages all states and communities to upgrade their floodplain management programs to help lessen these costs and to provide safer, more resilient communities for their residents and businesses. We are proud to be partners with both the City of La Crosse and FEMA in offering proven flood protection solutions.

91 claims for $278,000 have been paid locally since 1978, but this is only insured losses, not the cost of the damages, sewer back up claims, disaster assistance, etc. There are 827 flood insurance policies in the City (see NFIP Insurance Report by State, County, Community – Region 05). It should be noted that most flood damage is uninsured, and does not show up here.

50. Would it not be fair to assume that if there have been almost no losses over a 25 year period, it is "reasonably" safe from flooding?

No, La Crosse has been very lucky. The statistical probability remains regardless of the historical record.

51. Doesn't the elevating of the ground under a structure create just as much of an obstruction as a building itself? How does this make sense for an uninhabitable structure like a garage?

Floodplain models are based on the assumption that the flood fringe has been filled. Therefore, a new structure should not raise the flood profile by more than 1/100th of a foot. The elevating of the ground serves as a flood proofing measure, and has less to do with causing obstructions or raising the regional flood profile. Our regulations are the minimum to qualify for insurance. The sense it makes is investments and insurable structures should be protected from flood damage – period. If that rationale doesn’t make sense, and we're going to start to select which structures merit protection and those that don’t, we're going to have to change the flood insurance policy contract to have more exclusions. This won’t help to move towards making communities more flood resistant as we could, and flood damage potential will increase. There is a distinction between Floodway and Flood Fringe; Flood Fringe areas can be filled but Floodways can not be filled.

Wisconsin DNR Questions

52. Is the whole code of NR 116 up for review, or only part of it?

At this time, it is impossible to know the extent of any possible changes. We will keep the public informed through updates on our website (see below) and public hearings. The DNR is currently looking at a number of issues, including decks, flood proofing standards for nonconforming buildings, accessory structures, etc.


(The link cited in this report no longer works. Please visit http://dnr.wi.gov/emergency/flood/ for more information or contact the Planning Department at (608) 789-7512.)

53. Are state and local regulations more restrictive than FEMA regulations? Why?

FEMA has always recognized that flood risks vary from region to region. What works in Louisiana may not be effective in Wisconsin. Therefore, the federal standards were designed as a "starting point" -each state was expected to tailor the standards to match its risks. In Wisconsin, many factors support the need for greater protection:

Spring snow melts, combined with heavy rains, create fast-rising and dangerous flood conditions throughout the state. Ice jams and other debris blockage routinely raise flood levels above the mapped regional flood elevations. Floodplain development not only increases the number of people and structures at risk, but the loss of open ground increases flood heights and velocities, a "double whammy" unique among natural hazards. For new development, higher elevation standards not only prevent flooding, they offer protection from being designated "nonconforming", which happens frequently in remapped areas where the two-foot standard doesn't apply. While there are other flood protection methods, higher elevation standards provide the safest and surest protection. Wisconsin is one of many states that have tailored the FEMA standards to address their flood problems.

The FEMA regulations were developed in 1968 and with few exceptions, have not been updated since. In the 36 years since passage, floodplain managers, engineers and scientists have demonstrated the importance of tailoring the regulations to address specific flooding problems in each state. Because of spring snow melt, ice jams and other hard-to-predict problems, Wisconsin and many other states have always required higher elevation standards for new floodplain development.

In addition, FEMA has always supported individually-tailored state regulations, since the national standards were designed to be a "skeleton" set of standards which the states were expected to refine and improve on. Besides providing more protection from unexpected flood conveyance problems, Wisconsin’s higher standards protect property owners from flood elevation changes due to new maps, changing hydrological conditions and upstream or downstream development. Wisconsin residents also save money on flood relief and flood insurance costs by elevating higher than the national minimums.

Below are the major differences between the state and federal regulations:

NR 116 does not allow any new development in floodway areas, except for open-sided structures which are accessory to an open space use such as a park or campground, or for water-dependent uses such as piers, wharves and docking facilities. FEMA allows new uses in floodway areas if the structure is elevated and does not cause any obstruction to flood flows or heights.

In floodfringe areas, NR 116 requires all new residential and commercial development to be placed on fill at least one foot above the regional flood elevation, with the lowest finished floor at least two feet above and the structure must also have dryland access to lands outside the regional floodplain. FEMA requires that new development be at or above the RFE.

For accessory structures, NR 116 allows the lowest floor to be no more than two feet below RFE, if the flood velocities are less than two feet per second. FEMA doesn't impose such limits if the structure is properly floodproofed, anchored, has service facilities elevated, is not used for human habitation or commercial purposes and doesn't obstruct flood flows.

NR 116 requires that additions to nonconforming floodfringe structures be either placed on fill or floodproofed to the flood protection elevation, which is two feet above the RFE. FEMA only requires floodproofing to the RFE.

54. What about variances in the floodplain?

Variances can be granted to dimensional standards (horizontal fill distances) for structures in the floodplain. Generally, the only dimensional standard that can be varied is the 15 feet of fill required for a residential or commercial structure in the floodfringe. If lot size, shape, topography or other physical features of the property would make it impractical to place 15 feet of fill around a proposed structure, than the Board of Appeals could vary the standard to allow a more reasonable amount to be placed around the proposed structure.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court recently struck down a provision in the Wisconsin model floodplain zoning ordinance that prohibited the granting of variances for floors below the regional flood elevation. While a local board now has the authority to grant such a variance, the board must still determine whether the property owner has a reasonable use of the property without the variance. If reasonable use already exists, the board cannot by law issue a variance to grant, extend or increase any existing use.

For example, a request to grant a variance for an addition to a legal, nonconforming structure or for a new accessory structure should not be granted since the property owner already enjoys a legal and reasonable use of the property.

The variance standards are derived from the statutory authority in Chapter 62, Wis. Stats., and from decades of case law which has further refined and spelled out the purposes of variance law and the extremely limited circumstances under which variances should be granted.

55. How can we change the floodplain laws in order to build/add on to our homes?

The Wisconsin state legislature and the governor must approve all changes to Wisconsin statutes and administrative codes. In the case of the floodplain management program, state laws must also be at least as restrictive as the National Flood Insurance Program regulations.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources periodically reviews and updates floodplain administrative rules in order to adequately carry out our responsibility to protect life and safety, infrastructure, and the beneficial values and functions of our state's floodplain areas. At this time, chapter NR 116 is being evaluated for possible updates. This would include floodproofing standards and accessory structure standards. Changes may be made to the rule in the next few years to address some of these concerns. The DNR is not in favor of lowering standards for homes in flood prone areas.

56. What constitutes substantial improvement?

Any improvement exceeding 50% of the equalized assessed value (not replacement cost) is "substantial". Substantial damage (damage exceeding 50% of the equalized assessed value) requires compliance in order to be rebuilt.

57. Can any substantial improvements be made on a home without first elevating the structure to the flood protection level?

No. It must be elevated. Focus is on structural repairs and additions. NR 116 allows general maintenance.

58. What regulations does the State of Wisconsin have that other states do not in regards to Floodplains?

Around one third of the states have adopted customized regulations that are stricter than FEMA's. Minnesota and Michigan both have similar regulations to Wisconsin, but regulations tend to be all over the board nationally to fit the individual state's flood characteristics. Most states have higher flood damage than Wisconsin does. See also answer to Question #53.

Sources: David Schein, FEMA; Gary Heinrichs, Wisconsin DNR; Dan Bauman, Wisconsin DNR; Gordon Stinson, Wisconsin DNR; City of La Crosse - Pat Caffrey, Director of Public Works; Ken Dentice, Director of Building and Inspections; Randy Turtenwald, City Engineer; Pat Houlihan, City Attorney; Larry Kirch, Director of City Planning.

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