POINCIANA – When the U.S. government contacted Osceola County last year to inform officials that some of its communities were in a flood zone – including several neighborhoods in Poinciana – and therefore at an increased risk of flooding, it stuck Annette Brown-Best and Jeanette Coughenour as rather odd.
As Coughenour noted, in all the years that she’s lived in Poinciana, there’s never been a single instance of a home that got flooded.
“When I think of flooding, I think of it affecting people’s valuables in their house,” she said. “I have never heard of any time when people had water coming into their houses from a flood — not from the water going in from the ground.”
As Brown-Best noted, some Central Florida counties are now under outdoor watering restrictions because dry weather conditions have significantly lowered lake levels – not the other way around.
“In October last year, there was an extreme rain event that happened with five inches of rain, and we had no problems,” she said.
What now worries Brown-Best, who lives on the Osceola County side of Poinciana, is the decision by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to insist that advanced satellite screenings have indicated that the exact opposite is happening, and some parts of Poinciana are now in a potentially risky flood zone.
“Their digital screenings have shown them that our water levels are rising and our properties are shrinking,” she said. “It’s just insane.”
Anyone who has lived in Poinciana for decades and thinks calling it a flood zone area is silly, though, have something else to be concerned about, Brown-Best said: the FEMA designation of being in a High Risk Flood Zone means banks and mortgage lenders would now require the homeowners to get flood insurance – which as Brown-Best noted, can run as high as $2,000 a year, depending on how risky the flood zone is considered to be by the government.
“Further, it means our mortgages will go up due to the escrow for the flood insurance,” she said. “This will go into effect in nine to 12 months.”
For a community already badly hurt economically by the collapse in the housing market and a high home foreclosure rate, Brown-Best said this latest development could be crippling for some struggling homeowners – which is why she’s trying so hard to raise awareness of the FEMA decision, and rally people to fight it.
“It is critical that the residents be informed about this,” she said. “It’s crazy what’s going on. All these people are going to be going into a flood zone, and they don’t even know it. I’ve been trying to get to the media to put it out there.”
On Thursday, March 1, Brown-Best helped organize a public meeting at the Palmetto Elementary School to update residents on this issue. Although 65 people turned out, “There’s another almost 2,000 people who don’t know this is going on” and are impacted by the FEMA decision, she said.
As Brown-Best noted, the FEMA decision means people who bought their homes years ago and were originally told they were not in a flood zone now have something to worry about.
“We’re guilty until proven innocent,” she said. “We were told when we bought our properties that we were not in a flood zone.”
But even though she’s tried to raise the alarm about this, “People are just totally ignoring it because they have paid money to get out of the flood zone, so they don’t believe this is happening. People think there’s no way they’re going to be in a flood zone.”
FEMA, she added, thinks otherwise.
Their options are limited. As Brown-Best noted, there’s a 90 day period to challenge FEMA’s ruling, and the residents need to hire a surveyor to do a study and see if they can convince the federal government that their property isn’t in a flood zone. A form must be filled out by the surveyor for each home and submitted to FEMA.
A local engineering firm — Hanson, Walter & Associates of Kissimmee — has agreed to do these surveys at a cost of $150 per house.
“If you don’t have your property surveyed at your own expense to prove you are not in a flood zone, you have a problem,” Brown-Best said. But she knows not everyone in the flood zone area can afford this added expense.
“We have to file this form and this form has to be filled out by a surveyor for each individual property owner,” she said. “Frankly, we don’t have that kind of money.”
Any resident who does get put into a designated flood zone, she said, can expect to pay an additional $365 a year for flood insurance – at first.
“The flood insurance is backed by the federal government, and right now we would be grandfathered in because we’re in a low risk flood zone, then going into a high risk one,” Brown-Best said. But after two years, higher rates would kick in – as high as $2,000 a year, she added.
Coughenour, the manager of Poinciana’s homeowners association, the Association of Poinciana Villages, said FEMA’s decision caught a lot of local residents by surprise.
“It’s a federal issue,” she said. “It’s the federal government that passes along information to the counties saying this area is in a flood zone, and residents have the opportunity to appeal that determination and get an engineer involved to determine the elevation of their property and determine where drainage has been placed over the years. It’s not all of Poinciana, just portions of it. If your appeal is successful, you could be taken out of that classification. If not, your mortgage company could require you to have flood insurance. You can multiply it out and see if it makes sense to do the surveying.”
Poinciana is a community of 10 villages that cut across Polk and Osceola counties. Coughenour said right now, FEMA is only looking at the Osceola County villages.
“This is all relative to Osceola County,” she said. “I haven’t heard anybody say they’ve been placed in a flood zone who were in our Polk County villages.”
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