Oct. 2, 2012
By Hannah Guzik, OVN contributor
When his home was included in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) new Ojai flood zone map, Malcolm Knight fought back. In early 2011, FEMA designated his Cruzero Street home as having a 1 percent chance of flooding each year — or once every 100 years — but Knight thought the feds had it wrong. “We border the creek, and the lower end of our lot was always just a tiny bit in the 100-year flood plane, but the thing that FEMA did was relocate that line way, way up to the other end of the property,” Knight said. “I thought, ‘That isn’t right.’” As federal, state and local officials have expanded fire and flood zones in Ojai in recent years, some residents have begun fighting back — doing their own analyses and saving thousands in insurance. Knight’s is one such success story. He knew that a tiny corner of his two-thirds-of-an-acre property had always been in the 100-year flood zone; but to have the entire parcel suddenly added to the zone didn’t seem accurate. Suddenly, he was required to pay $1,200 for flood insurance — two times the cost of his homeowner’s insurance policy — because his home now sat in the danger zone. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, FEMA began reanalyzing its flood maps, reissuing much of Ojai’s map in January 2010. The new maps utilize newer data and technology to more accurately predict where flooding is likely to occur — but they can still be wrong because analysts didn’t take into account small topographical changes on each parcel or the specific location of houses on the land. The map changes can mean higher insurance rates and lower property values for some Ojai parcels. Mortgages holders on properties located in 100-year flood zones are required to have flood insurance. Knight paid about $600 to have his land surveyed, which showed that his house wasn’t in the danger zone, although some of his property is. “I’m glad I did it, because it ended up saving us a lot of money and showed the maps were inaccurate,” he said. FEMA accepted the new survey and Knight is no longer required to have flood insurance, he said. “My moral to the story is when you get this strange zone, don’t let it go, follow up,” said Bob Daddi, an Ojai insurance broker. The county last week sent letters to insurance brokers reminding them of the flood plane information it offers and of the discount, Daddi said. FEMA is still looking at possibly reevaluating the flood maps in some areas of Ojai, including the East End near where McAndrew and Thacher roads intersect, according to Daddi. The current map estimates that a flood would run “rim to rim” from Thacher School to Grand Avenue, he said. “By the first estimate, it looks like we would be looking at the approximate removal of 48 percent of the residential units in the East End (from the flood zone), which is an enormous amount,” he said. “Those people that will be removed will be removed from that burden.” Since the 1970s, homeowners in the area have spent millions adhering to the flood zone requirements, which place extra requirements on construction projects, Daddi said. “Of course the question is, ‘Will there be a refund?’” he said. “And I’m not sure that’s much of a question when you’re talking about the government.” Meanwhile, as wildfires have raged near the city in recent years, some insurance companies have deemed Ojai too great a risk and simply stopped offering policies to homeowners, Daddi said. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reissued the Ojai fire map in 2010, including a large area of the eastern and northern portions of Ojai in the danger zone, Daddi said. “When you’re put in a very high fire-hazard designation, insurance companies take note and we’ve had a number of insurers that have declined to continue selling,” he said. Insurance underwriters also use Google maps to view street conditions and will sometimes make decisions based on how much brush or dried vegetation appears to be in the area, Daddi said. “If we have an area that has a loss or low chlorophyll, where it’s browning and we’re losing a lot of the urban forest, they will determine that it’s too high of a risk and that will restrict the ability of agents to write insurance,” he said. “Fire insurance is getting tougher and tougher to get. The homes are getting older and the trees are getting more overgrown, so less insurers want to come here.” Doug Campbell, a retired Ventura County fire behavior analyst and an Ojai resident, is working on creating a computer program that would more accurately predict fire behavior, but it’s still in the prototype stage, he said. He envisions homeowners using the program to determine whether their homes are at risk and, if so, under what conditions. “I’m at the top end of the block at Sunset (Place) right up against the mountain, and I’ve run model above my place and only under certain circumstances would it be threatened,” he said. “The state doesn’t take that into account, because they have no way of doing so.” Although the fire and flood restrictions can be frustrating and sometimes inaccurate, they illustrate the real dangers in the city at large, Daddi said. “Ojai’s a real dichotomy,” he said. “There’s too much water with flooding and too little water with drought and too much fire with wind.” To check whether your home is in a flood zone, visit www.floodsmart.gov or call (888) 379-9531. Visit http://frap.cdf.ca.gov/webdata/maps/ventura/fhszs_map.56.jpg to view the fire hazard severity zones map for Ventura County.
Oct. 2, 2012