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PD Editorial: Flood program is raising homes and cutting losses

Behind the initial damage toll of $155 million from last week's Russian River flood is some positive news: only 35 homes and businesses have been red-tagged as uninhabitable.

That's out of 2,000 inspected through Monday afternoon by Permit Sonoma, the county's planning department.

After the last major Russian River flood, in 2006, 66 homes and businesses were red-tagged. There were 77 in 1997. In the record flood of 1986, when the river crested at 48.6 feet, there were 150 red tags.

The steadily declining numbers reflect three decades of progress in fortifying river communities to withstand floods, most notably an ongoing program to elevate homes.

Since 1995, the county has issued 725 permits to raise homes above the 100-year flood level.

The remodels cost an average of $200,000. Many of them have been subsidized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has provided $19.5 million to date in grant funding to elevate the living area of homes along the lower river. Homeowners must agree to limit their use of the lower area to storage or parking.

About 200 FEMA-funded projects raised homes that had flooded more than once.

The elevation program is a good investment. The unique geography of the lower river, where runoff from a 1,485-square-mile drainage basin must squeeze through a steep, narrow canyon, makes floods inevitable.

“The best you can do is tear down those houses or elevate them,” Jeffrey Mount, a river expert with the Public Policy Institute of California, told the San Jose Mercury News.

After the 1986 flood, Staff Writer Mary Callahan reported Sunday, county officials briefly discussed relocating the entire town of Guerneville. But it wasn't a viable option.

And, as Mount pointed out, traditional flood control measures, such as dams, would cost more than value of the benefits delivered to the approximately 4,500 residents along the lower river - even if objections to the impacts on agriculture and fisheries could be overcome.

Sonoma County has accounted for a third of the payments in the state for repeat losses under the National Flood Insurance Program - nearly $61 million since 1978. Elevating houses near in the flood zone will reduce those claims, but it won't eliminate them. So far, 600 homes and businesses have been yellow tagged, meaning they pose some risk.

That's why property owners in flood zones - and nearby - need flood insurance. But the 50-year-old program is in jeopardy.

Congress renewed the program for four months in September and for five more months in December. The next deadline is May 31.

More than 5 million people from hurricane alley in the Southeast to the lower Russian River here in Sonoma County rely on FEMA's program because mortgage lenders demand coverage in flood zones and private policies don't cover water damage. The federal program's shortcomings are no secret: premiums are insufficient to cover claims, and flood zone maps aren't up to date.

The problems can be fixed by better aligning premiums with risk, improving maps and offering incentives - like the elevation program - to make homes and businesses more resilient. Congress should explore private insurers' interest in adding flood coverage to homeowners' policies, and it should consider the costs and benefits of a national disaster insurance program covering floods, wildfires, earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes.

What Congress can't do is let this program expire. That's a disaster no one can afford.

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