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Benefits expected for residents with 205 project

SNOQUALMIE - As Snoqualmie public officials cut the ribbon on the 205 Project this week, many downtown residents will be breathing a sigh of relief.

The $4.6-million flood reduction project, which the city has been working to fund and complete for more than 20 years, is set to be finished this fall and a ribbon cutting ceremony is scheduled for Sept. 29. By widening the banks of the Snoqualmie River right above the Snoqualmie Falls, the project's engineers are hoping flood waters can be reduced in the city's downtown area. The flood level drop during an 100-year flood event (a flood that statistically happens once every 100 years) is estimated to be up to 1.6 feet.

While Snoqualmie residents will see the benefits of the project during a flood, the effect of the project on the day-to-day cost of living in downtown Snoqualmie (i.e. flood insurance) won't be as immediate. Under federal law, homes in a flood plain (or at least those purchased with any federally-regulated mortgage) must have flood insurance. There are some exceptions and discounts for homes that have been raised or are on an elevated "island" in a flood plain, but many homeowners in downtown Snoqualmie deal with flood insurance.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) creates maps of flood plains and sets the rates for policies. These insurance policies, part of the agency's National Flood Insurance Plan (NFIP), were first offered only through FEMA, but can now be purchased through private brokers.

FEMA updates its maps periodically and sets the rates according to its new findings. When FEMA will get around to remapping the Snoqualmie River, however, is unknown. Mike Howard, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security (FEMA's parent department), said there is no set timeline for FEMA to review Snoqualmie's flood plain.

If and when FEMA does remap the city's flood plain, there is still a long process before residents will see a financial benefit from it. Once the maps are issued, FEMA goes through a public comment period that takes a long time, especially if a party disputes the map with their own hydrologist firm. North Bend has been involved in remapping its own flood plain for the past 10 years, but the city has been told by FEMA that the maps will be approved "any day now." Once the maps are approved, the city and county will go through a six-month process of formally adopting the maps.

"They [contesting parties] can dispute the maps at the micro level [smaller in scope] as opposed to the macro level [larger in scope], which is the model FEMA uses," said North Bend Public Works Analyst Debi Heiden. "They can argue the details."

Although the proposed map is used by the city for planning purposes because it is more restrictive than the current map, the proposed map has yet to be approved and is therefore not used by insurance agencies for flood policies.

Heiden said that although Snoqualmie is anticipating a benefit from the 205 Project, North Bend's flood plain should not be affected.

"We don't expect to see any benefit," she said.

Even if the 205 Project causes flood plain zoning to change, residents may choose not to accept a new zoning rate. Through a grandfather clause in flood insurance laws, FEMA allows residents to keep their house in its original zone designation once new rates or polices are issued. New homes and developments, however, would have to adhere to the new zoning.

New zoning does not always mean no flooding, either. Officials have warned that although the 205 Project may reduce flooding, it will not make it go away.

"Those who have had four feet of water in the yard during a flood will still be flooded [during a flood]," said Dave Clark, manager of flood reduction projects for the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks.

Being a flood plain resident in Snoqualmie is not without its benefits. FEMA gives discounts to communities that have taken steps to prepare for floods and prevent flooding damage. Snoqualmie's efforts have earned its residents a 20-percent discount on flood insurance rates. Snoqualmie Mayor Fuzzy Fletcher also said the city will be working with FEMA to get the maps done.

"We have gone through it before," he said.

The benefits of the 205 Project, regardless of its immediate financial impacts, should not be discounted, according to Farmer's Insurance broker Jim Gildersleeve. Gildersleeve, who has an office in downtown Snoqualmie, said the threats to personal safety and the psychological strain of dealing with a flood are just as, if not more, critical than anything involving insurance.

"Those are important issues," he said.

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