A federal agency will punish Benewah County for allowing homes to be built too low on the flood plains flanking the St. Joe River.
“There were some real bad mistakes made,” said Chuck Steele, a top regional official with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “There were homes actually dug into the dike.”
Within two weeks, Benewah will become the first county in the Northwest that FEMA has ever placed on probation for permitting “illegal” construction in flood plains, Steele said. Rathdrum may face similar action.
If the problems in Benewah County are not corrected within a year, the county will be dropped from the FEMA-run National Flood Insurance Program.
As a result, Benewah County residents would not be able to buy flood insurance at all. They also would be entitled to less, if any, emergency assistance in the event of another flood.
Even if the county corrects the problems, homeowners holding federal flood insurance policies will be forced to pay a one-time $50 fee for the county’s failure to enforce its own codes.
“That may not seem like a lot of money,” said Steele, FEMA mitigation director for Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Alaska. “But it’s pretty irritating.”
Steele said at least 15 recently flooded homes just outside St. Maries were built too low on flood plains. He said the county also improperly rated their flood risk.
He said some of the homes were built with the first floors above the 100-year flood line but with the basements well below it. He said those homes and others will have to be moved or raised.
The city of St. Maries has its own flood plain codes and is not threatened by the actions against the county.
Elaine McReynolds, administrator of the National Flood Insurance Program, traveled to Idaho Thursday morning to call attention to the need for flood insurance.
She presented advance payments to two insured Cataldo couples.
Jim and June Daugherty had 5 feet of muddy water in their home along the Coeur d’Alene River.
“Everything from the ceiling to the footings has to be redone,” June Daugherty said.
Jim Daugherty clutched the $3,000 check, the first money he’ll get in return for paying premiums for 22 years.
When McReynolds asked him what he would have done without the insurance benefits, he replied: “I have no idea. … We wouldn’t have anything.”
For the first time, FEMA actively is advertising its flood insurance program which collects $1.1 billion in premiums a year. But despite its expansion, only about 20 percent of homeowners living in flood plains have policies.
Plus, the program already has borrowed $442 million from the U.S. Treasury this year to cover its claims.
The average premium in the country is about $300 a year, but some people pay well more than $1,000 depending on the value of their homes and their location on a flood plain.
Brenda and Larry Stinson noted the insurance won’t cover the loss of their Cataldo barn, boats, tractor, van and other outdoor equipment.
“There were a lot of years when we had trouble paying for it,” Brenda Stinson said of the insurance premium. “Should we pay it? Should we not pay it? Now, we’re glad we did.”
This year, the federal government is trying another incentive for people to buy insurance. Homeowners without the coverage will be able to get federal emergency assistance only once.
The next time disaster hits, the aid will not be available unless they have purchased flood insurance.
As of Thursday, FEMA had received requests for emergency assistance from 233 Benewah County residents. FEMA also has gotten 203 assistance requests from Shoshone County and another 149 from Kootenai County.
FEMA’s Steele said he first became aware of violations in unincorporated Benewah County in November - three months before the floods.
He said county officials were asked to prove the homes had been built properly. He said he never has seen any proof.
Steele said there is no doubt the county will be put on probation. He said the county will receive a letter of notification within two weeks.
Benewah County commissioners and other officials did not return repeated calls for comment.
Steele said FEMA also is concerned about possible violations in the Rathdrum area. He said the agency is awaiting response from Rathdrum officials before putting that community on probation.
Rathdrum did not experience serious flooding during the recent quick snow melt.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo