Corpus Christi and the Coastal Bend of Texas | We Investigate

Draft flood maps to change the cost of business for downtown

It’s going to get more expensive to run a business in downtown Corpus Christi.

Exactly how much more expensive and when that will happen is not yet known. Proposed revisions to FEMA’s flood maps put all of downtown Corpus Christi in a special hazard flood area.

That would trigger mandatory flood insurance for property owners, and require any new businesses to either elevate or flood proof the building from potential flood waters.

The new reality has led to a tough stance by city engineers: It’s cost prohibitive to upgrade the entire seawall and levee system that protects downtown. In turn, some of the flood burden will shift to business owners.

“In back and forth discussion (with FEMA), I think the city is resolved to the fact that we are going to see a flood elevation down there,” said Jeff Edmonds, director of the city of Corpus Christi’s engineering services. “We are hoping that we can come up with something that is mutually agreeable by FEMA.”

FEMA officials have said they are working with the city before publishing another round of preliminary maps. For now, the downtown area is in what’s called a “seclusion area,” which allows the city to seclude a portion of the city from the final maps and enforce only the 1985 flood maps until its worked out an agreement.

Over the years, the city of Corpus Christi has spent tens of millions of tax dollars to improve and maintain the system. Most of the money has come out of a dedicated city fund that collects a one-eighth cent of local sales tax. FEMA’s revisions to the flood maps show the system is not designed to handle a 100-year storm event like Hurricane Harvey, if it had roared ashore over the downtown area.

For existing businesses – the biggest change will be for flood insurance. It’s something that House of Rock owner Casey Lain hasn’t had to consider until now.

“I don’t know what the cost difference is going to be for insurance,” he said. “It could be a lot. It could be a little.”
For 14 years, Lain has run a music venue with the most recent addition – a pizza kitchen. For new businesses owners wanting to invest in downtown, Lain offered this advice:

“You want to know exactly what you’re up against before you start swinging hammers, before you start making plans,” he said. “So it’s one more thing to kind of research and figure out before you make a commitment.”

Lain asked for city leaders commit to a well-maintained levee system, so there won’t be any deferred maintenance issues on the level of what happened with the city roads – which at last count had a repair bill of more than $1 billion.

A plan to improve the levee system should be the next step, said City Councilman Everett Roy, who represents the downtown area in District 1. He wants a plan of action that extends beyond repairs to the weak links in the system, which currently are slated for upgrades.

“If we have an issue and they (the levees) fail, it could cause a lot of damage and that’s something that we got to continue to work on maintenance wise to ensure that we protect the businesses, the residents and the people in that area,” Roy said.

It could be another two years before those maps take effect, said Larry Voice, a civil engineer for FEMA who is overseeing the map changes in South Texas. The new models show a marked change in storm events.

“You may have some over-topping of the seawall,” he said. “That isn’t going to cause a major failure. The levee is a narrower system, an embankment that will start getting over topped and could see (water) seepage under or over. The problem there could be larger type of failure.”

Because of the model calculations, Voice said the downtown property protected by the levee likely will have higher flood elevations requirements – closer to 8 feet. That’s the part of downtown that backs up to the northside of the city and the area near the American Bank Center. The area protected by the seawall will have elevation requirements around 7 feet.

For property owners, the message for now is to buy flood insurance now to lock in the current rates because the flood maps take effect, Voice said.

There is some grandfathering if you have flood insurance,” he said.

Jessica Savage

Jessica Savage

Award-winning investigative reporter who has worked in East Texas and South Texas.
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