Hooray! Today, after over a year of protesting, we were finally refunded the full $1,453 for flood insurance we had to buy because of a FEMA map mistake. Sometimes, you can fight City Hall and win!
On 7 July 2009, my husband and I received a letter from our mortgage holder that FEMA (the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency) had changed their FIRM (Flood Insurance Rate Map) such that our house was now in a high-risk SFHA (Special Flood Hazard Area). We were required to buy annual flood insurance for the life of our mortgage loan because of FEMA’s map change.
Our house was built around 1930 next to the Guadalupe River, also known as the Lewis Canal in what is now the Willow Glen neighborhood of San Jose, California. The Lewis Canal is named after its engineer, Frank Lewis (who was husband to Martha “Patty” Reed Lewis of the Donner Party). The canal was built about a hundred years ago. The property line behind our house runs down the middle of the river and includes a steep embankment that rises five feet above ground level and then drops twenty feet to the river water.
How did the FEMA map of a hundred-year-old canal and eighty-year-old house change? FEMA maps used to be drawn on a plain background. Some clever person decided to take the old maps (as is – with no change) and superimpose the lines on a background of satellite photos. The resolution of the original map and the satellite map were different. The old map was drawn on square grids and the satellite photos were taken with a round lens – so there was some mismatch and alignment error. A flat picture of the round Earth will always have such errors.
The creation of the new map caused the mortgage company’s flood area determination company (LPS National Flood) to review the situation of the mortgaged properties which might be effected. Although FEMA’s new FIRM did not include any new information with regard to the relative location of our house and the river, the new picture’s misalignment appeared to make the line indicating our house touch the line of the river. That our house is ten feet from the edge of the embankment’s retaining wall did not matter. Taking the most conservative approach, the mortgage company required us starting immediately to pay $1,453 annually for flood insurance for the duration of the mortgage.
We talked with our mortgage company with no good results. We contacted FEMA with no good results. We contacted LPS National Flood with no good results. We talked with the insurance company with no good results. Everyone said that even though the new map did not correctly reflect the physical circumstances of our house and the river, the mortgage company could require us to buy flood insurance in perpetuity based on the map. We signed up for flood insurance and continued to fight.
We eventually hired J.P. Tanner of Scotts Valley to work with FEMA to correct their map. We learned in the process that hundreds of other San Jose home owners along the river were in the same bureaucratic map-insurance mess as we were. Eventually, in April 2010, FEMA issued a LOMA (Letter of Map Amendment) formally removing our house from the flood zone. It took until today for our mortgage and insurance companies to issue paperwork and send a refund check.