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$300-Million Solution Sought to Control ‘100-Year’ Floods

Times Staff Writer

A “100-year flood,” which would swamp about half of Carson and all or part of 15 other cities in the South Bay, Southeast and Long Beach areas, can be stopped by constructing concrete walls up to five feet high atop levees along 21 miles of the Rio Hondo and Los Angeles rivers, federal officials say.

That $300-million solution, proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers, will be outlined today in public meetings at Lakewood City Hall and in the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce headquarters in downtown Los Angeles.

The proposal, which caps 15 years of study by the corps, is part of a two-pronged federal program designed to eventually contain the two rivers within their banks even after torrential rains--and to provide flood insurance for property owners in a vast, newly defined flood plain in the meantime.

On March 21, in a second meeting, officials from the 16 cities will be briefed on the expanded federal flood insurance program. All but two of the cities are already participants in the existing insurance program.

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Because the program requires flood insurance on any new construction within the flood plain and on homes purchased with federally insured loans, some local officials have already said they are concerned that it could slow home sales and drive away commercial projects.

Flood insurance on affected homes with a $185,000 loan would range from $240 to $530 a year, depending on risk, federal officials said.

In addition to the insurance requirements, the flood program says new buildings must be constructed above the level a 100-year flood would reach.

“The expanded insurance program could be in place within two years, the officials said. Insurance requirements would be repealed when the corps’ flood-control improvements are completed, perhaps within a decade, since the risk of flooding would be virtually eliminated, they said.

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That the South Bay, Long Beach and Southeast areas need much more protection than previously thought from a 100-year flood--one with a 1% chance of occurring in any single year--was announced by the Corps of Engineers in September, 1987.

The corps concluded that the 100-year flood plain of the 2,000-square-mile Los Angeles County Drainage Area was about 50% larger than it had estimated only two years before.

Engineers now estimate that a 100-year flood would blanket up to 82 square miles with water two to eight feet deep, causing up to $2.25 billion in damage. They say that the flood would damage about 120,000 buildings, including the homes of about 625,000 people.

Though small parts of the San Fernando Valley and downtown Los Angeles would be inundated, the bulk of the flood’s devastation would be absorbed by the communities that straddle the lower Los Angeles River and the Rio Hondo south of the Whittier Narrows Dam, the corps reported.

As a result, the construction plan the corps is now recommending focuses on flooding in southern Los Angeles County.

Cities in the flood plain are Bellflower, Bell Gardens, Carson, Cerritos, Compton, Downey, Gardena, Lakewood, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Lynwood, Montebello, Paramount, Pico Rivera, Signal Hill and Torrance. Unincorporated parts of Los Angeles County are also included.

Under the corps’ plan, levees along the two rivers, which now are between 20 and 25 feet high, would be raised an average of three to five feet. The plan also calls for raising 24 bridges to accommodate the higher channel and shoring up existing levees where they are weakest.

“It’s a pretty benign plan in that we’re not taking any land,” said Jon Sweeten, assistant project manager for the Corps of Engineers. “The public won’t be impacted.”

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The project was chosen because it protects the most property for the lowest cost, which is the basic federal criterion for judging flood-control proposals, Sweeten said. It would prevent damage of about $2 billion at a cost of $300 million, he said.

From a cost-benefit standpoint the project should rank high, said Cliff Ford, a corps design specialist. Most flood-control projects show benefits 1 to 1 1/2 times their costs, he said.

Comments from today’s hearing will be considered in preparing a final proposal that will be submitted to Congress within a year, Sweeten said. Congress will then consider it along with numerous other projects from across the country.

Congress would fund between 50% and 75% of the project, with the rest coming from the state and from Los Angeles County flood-control funds. Construction alone would take up to seven years, Sweeten said.

Some city officials expressed skepticism about the corps’ flood projections. “The federal government is planning everything for the great disaster that never happens,” said Pico Rivera City Manager Dennis Courtemarche.

Ken Landau, city manager in Gardena, said city engineers concluded that flooding would be less extensive there than projected by the corps in 1987. Federal officials have agreed to reduce the estimated size of the flood plain in Gardena, he said.

“We now have less than 50 acres” in the plain, all of it in the unpopulated Willows area along the Dominguez Channel, Landau said. Developments north of the Artesia Boulevard and Vermont Avenue intersection, including a new senior citizens complex, would not be harmed by a 100-year flood, he said.

Officials from several other cities predicted that the corps’ proposal will receive strong support.

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“It certainly sounds like a good, economical solution,” said Carson City Engineer George Schultz.

Long Beach City Manager Jim Hankla said the City Council had reviewed the corps’ plan in a series of community meetings “and we are prepared to be supportive.”

“There is some concern that the corps’ estimate (of flood damage) may be somewhat inflated,” Hankla said. “But we really won’t know until we have the 100-year storm. We’ve had some god-awful storms, so we can be believers.”

Army engineers say Long Beach was just one storm away from a 100-year flood in 1980, when six closely bunched winter storms raised churning waters to the top of the Los Angeles River, splashing debris atop 20-foot-high levees at Wardlow Road.

Some Criticism

While the river channel improvements may prove popular, the issue of mandatory flood insurance has already prompted critical comment by some city officials.

Of the 16 area cities that would be inundated during a 100-year flood, all but Downey and Bell Gardens already participate in the federal flood insurance program. Property owners in those cities are required to follow regulations that include mandatory purchase of flood insurance on homes bought with a federally insured loan.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees the flood insurance program, is updating its flood hazard maps to show the new flood plain defined by the agency’s own separate study. Its findings are similar to those of the corps.

The agency’s maps provide information about the potential for flooding on a building-by-building basis.

Dick Redmayne, city engineer in Downey, said annual flood insurance premiums of between $240 and $530 on a $185,000 home loan raises the question of whether Downey should join the program.

“That’s quite an expense,” Redmayne said. “I’m not sure the City Council understands how much it costs.”

For most homes, damage from a 100-year flood probably would be not be extensive because the water would be shallow and damage might be limited to carpeting and furniture, he said.

“If you have $1,000 in damage and you’ve already paid $3,000 in premiums, it may not be economical,” he said. “In everything we do, we take chances, so we’ll just have to weigh the risks against the cost of providing the insurance.”

More Than Necessary

Schultz, city engineer in Carson, where corps engineers say extensive and deep flooding will occur, said he also thinks mandatory flood insurance on the full amount of a home loan up to $185,000 is probably more coverage than most area homeowners need.

In addition, in Carson, “we still have quite a bit of industrial land,” and elevating industrial projects above the flood plain “could be a real problem for us. And even if you’ve elevated the new structure, even then you have to buy flood insurance for the full amount of the loan.”

But Long Beach manager Hankla said he doesn’t think flood insurance will hurt property sales there.

“In any other real estate market, that probably would be a big deal,” he said, “but in this market I don’t think $250 to $500 in flood insurance is going to kill many deals.”

In addition, office buildings can offset the costs of building above the flood plain by putting a parking garage on its first floor, he said.

Ray Lenaburg, a civil engineer for the emergency management agency, said any city that knows of flood dangers and does not participate in the federal insurance program is leaving itself open to lawsuits by its property owners.

“If they don’t make the proper insurance available, I can see there is a liability there. Once we come in with our preliminary damage reports and they don’t use them, there’s a pretty cut-and-dried case there.”

In one such case, an Eastern city settled a lawsuit out of court, he said.

“Flood insurance is not cheap,” Lenaburg said. “But I would even encourage people who do not have to buy it to buy a reasonable amount. A flood four to five feet deep is not going to wipe their house off (its foundation). But if it’s in your door, there goes your carpet. Then it’s in your furniture and electrical system. By the time it’s two to three feet high it gets into your Sheetrock.”

That can mean damage of $20,000 to $30,000, he said.

Premiums vs. Payments

Some city officials speculated that property owners in Los Angeles County’s expanded flood plain are now being asked to subsidize the nation’s flood insurance program.

“If you take an area the size of Los Angeles, where we rarely get floods, and charge $250 to $500 for insurance, it seems like we’re financing a lot of floods in Brownsville (Texas),” Downey’s Redmayne said. “There are a lot of communities that get flooded every year and build right back in the same place.”

Some states, including California and Florida, have paid out more in premiums than they have received in payments for flood damage, Lenaburg said. “The whole concept in any insurance program is that you spread the risk. But rates are lower where the risk is lower,” he said.

Figures for Los Angeles County and the 16 cities in the Long Beach, Southeast and South Bay areas show that homeowners have paid premiums of about $30 million while receiving about $17 million in damage payments during the last decade, he said.

The average coverage under the 8,200 policies written in this area is $137,000 and premiums average about $360 a year, he said.

Proposed Channel Improvements Proposed improvements call for raising the effective flood channel height an average of three to five feet along 21 miles of river channel.


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