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COVER STORY : Citing risk of a devastating flood, the federal government wants Southeast residents to get costly and unpopular insurance against . . . : HIGH WATER

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Federal experts call it The Flood. If it hits Southeast Los Angeles County, a sea of water will rush over the banks of the Los Angeles River and the nearby Rio Hondo Channel, trapping motorists in raging currents, filling homes to the rooftops, and soaking schools and hospitals.

The deluge surging toward the Pacific Ocean will inundate 82 square miles, cutting a devastating path across 10 area cities--from the northern tip of Pico Rivera through Downey and Lakewood to Compton, Carson and Long Beach. Hundreds of landmarks will be engulfed. The corridors of Compton College and Lakewood Hospital will be under two feet of water. Carson Mall will be swamped by eight feet of water. Jordan High School in North Long Beach will have five feet of water running through its hallways.

Although chances of such a catastrophic flood are slim--a storm would have to dump three times more water in a 24-hour period than did the heavy downpour on Jan. 4 that drenched Long Beach--the Federal Emergency Management Agency wants area cities and residents to prepare as though it were just around the corner.

FEMA plans to require property owners in the flood zone to carry flood insurance costing hundreds of dollars a year. The agency also plans to require all new commercial and residential structures to be elevated to protect them from floodwaters.

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The measures are necessary, the agency contends, to protect residents and businesses from a so-called 100-year flood--the kind of deluge that periodically swamped the area before the riverbed was paved with concrete and levees were added, beginning in the late 1930s. Such a flood would destroy the levees and, according to a federal study, soak nearly 180,000 structures, affect half a million people and cause more than $2 billion in damage.

Some residents and city leaders dispute FEMA’s conclusions, arguing that there’s not enough evidence to prove such a flood will ever occur. Others contend that FEMA’s plans to protect the area from a catastrophic flood are too drastic.

FEMA turned its attention to the Southeast area in the late 1980s after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers raised concerns about whether the river could contain a massive downpour. FEMA identified the area as a flood-hazard plain in 1991, but its proposed regulations were stalled by local opposition.

Now, the agency plans to impose building regulations in March. A set of maps identifying the area as a flood-hazard zone will follow by September.

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To city and business leaders in the flood zone, the requirements spell economic disaster. The regulations, they say, will cripple an area just beginning to emerge from a prolonged recession in which thousands of aerospace workers lost their jobs and scores of businesses closed.

“It’s something this region needs like an 8.0 earthquake,” Long Beach City Councilman Les Robbins said.

Downey City Manager Gerald M. Caton offers an equally gloomy assessment. “These flood-plain regulations are going to put us into a local depression,” he warned. “It’s the final blow we don’t need.”

The requirement that new buildings be built as much as three feet above the ground will cause construction costs to soar, officials warn. New development will dry up, they say, resulting in a de facto building moratorium throughout the flood zone.

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“There will be an exodus of businesses,” Pico Rivera Vice Mayor Garth G. Gardner said.

Some real estate brokers predict that the added costs of flood insurance, plus the area’s designation as a flood-hazard zone, could throw the real estate market into a tailspin just as it is showing signs of rebounding from several soft years.

Homeowners in the flood plain will pay up to $460 a year for $100,000 worth of flood insurance. Commercial property owners will spend up to $770 annually for the same amount of coverage. The insurance would be required for all property owners who have federally insured mortgages or who have mortgages with federally insured banks.

“Any insurance increases are . . . detrimental,” said Jim Clarke, government affairs director for the Rancho Los Cerritos Assn. of Realtors, which represents about 850 Southeast-area agents. “We’re doing all we can in this area to keep home prices down.”

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FEMA officials said the potential economic fallout has no bearing on their policies.

“We’ve been mandated by Congress to map flood-prone areas across the country. That is our job,” said Karl Mohr, a FEMA project officer who oversees flood insurance studies. “It has not been our job to look at the economic impact of the maps.”

Several area cities--including Paramount, Bellflower, Lakewood, Pico Rivera, South Gate and Carson--have banded together and launched a counterattack, hiring a Washington lobbyist and enlisting key Congressional members in an effort to force FEMA to scale back its requirements.

Although community leaders say they recognize the flood threat, they also contend that FEMA’s approach is extreme. Officials from the cities favor an alternate plan that would raise river levees as much as eight feet.

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Some officials and homeowner groups in Long Beach, however, question whether any kind of a flood protection plan is necessary, saying the agency has other motives.

“The flood they talk about is nothing more than a fund-raising scam for the federal government” at the expense of the Southeast taxpayers, Long Beach City Councilman Jeffrey A. Kellogg said.

FEMA officials acknowledge that insurance premiums go to pay flood claims throughout the country. But without the insurance, the federal government would be unable to pay billions of dollars to cover damages from flooding, they say.

Without the flood insurance program, “the treasury of the United States would be in grave threat,” said Donald R. Beaton Jr., chief underwriter for the Federal Insurance Administration, an arm of FEMA.

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FEMA officials say there is strong evidence that a 100-year flood--which they say has a 1% chance of occurring in a given year--would overrun local flood control channels. They point to a 1987 Corps of Engineers study that concluded that the river and the nearby Rio Hondo could no longer withstand a flood of that magnitude.

The study pointed out that the Los Angeles River almost overflowed its banks in Long Beach during a series of heavy storms in 1980. Pictures show deposits of debris at the top of the levee.

Corps engineers say that floods are a growing concern in the Southeast area because more water is flowing into the Los Angeles River--the result of urban runoff from upstream communities--than anyone had predicted.

The corps’ findings prompted FEMA to conduct a study of its own. In 1991, the agency identified much of the Southeast as a “special flood-hazard area"--a designation that would have automatically required mandatory flood insurance and stiff building regulations.

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But FEMA had to put its plans on hold when local cities persuaded Congress to intervene.

In 1992, a congressional delegation that included the late Rep. Glenn M. Anderson (D-San Pedro) pushed through legislation that required FEMA to subsidize the insurance costs and scale back the required construction elevations to a maximum of three feet off the ground.

Without the legislation, insurance costs would have been far more expensive and all new structures would have been built above anticipated flood levels--up to 15 feet above the ground in some areas.

FEMA was given two years to draft new guidelines--providing the Southeast area valuable time to mount support for the alternate flood-control plan that local officials believe will resolve the problem.

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Under the plan, two- to eight-foot walls would be added to the tops of levees along the river, the Rio Hondo Channel and a segment of Compton Creek. Eleven bridges also would be raised along the waterways. The $300-million project would be funded by the federal government and the county. Construction could start by summer and finish within nine years.

Some local officials and members of Congress say FEMA should shelve its regulations altogether because the flood control project will provide adequate protection.

“As long as there is a good-faith effort on the (levee) project, there should be no imposition of flood insurance fees,” said Rep. Steve Horn (R-Long Beach), who represents most of the communities affected by FEMA’s plans. “I think it would be absolutely counterproductive.”

But the levee project faces stiff opposition from environmental groups, which have threatened to file lawsuits that could delay the project for years. Environmentalists say the levee plan fails to consider alternatives that would preserve the river’s ecosystems, create more parkland and conserve water.

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The powerful nonprofit group Friends of the Los Angeles River is leading the charge, accompanied by several other prominent organizations, including Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay and the National Resources Defense Council, which is involved in environmental issues.

Friends of the Los Angeles River already has warned county public works officials that it will sue if the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approves the project, as expected, in March.

“Friends of the Los Angeles River accepts that there is a flood hazard. We are looking for better alternatives to address the problem,” said Jim Danza, head of the organization’s technical advisory board. “There are ways to achieve flood protection (while) providing other needs, including more park space.”

Earlier this month, Friends of the Los Angeles River released two proposals that it says will provide protection from a 100-year flood while also preserving the waterway’s habitats and increasing water conservation.

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Under the first plan, water would be stored in gravel pits above Whittier Narrows Dam, to reduce the amount of flow into the Rio Hondo Channel. A segment of the Los Angeles River below Compton Creek also would be widened and deepened, and greenery would replace concrete.

The other alternative would raise Whittier Narrows Dam three to five feet and also widen and deepen the southern end of the Los Angeles River in Long Beach.

Corps and county public works officials are reviewing the proposals. Some of the officials questioned, however, whether Friends of the Los Angeles River had provided enough technical data to support its plans.

“There’s a lot of information that is missing,” said Diego Cadena, who is supervising the levee project for the Public Works Department. “The calculations are not there. The assumptions are hard to verify. We look at this as just a concept.”

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Other groups, meanwhile, are raising their own concerns about the levee alternative. Most of the opposition is coming from homeowner and business associations in Long Beach that say the heightened walls--stretching along 12 miles of the Los Angeles River and nine miles of the Rio Hondo Channel--will obstruct views, provide targets for graffiti vandals and send property values plummeting.

The groups also complain that the walls will speed the flow of water down the river, depositing additional garbage and debris at its mouth near downtown Long Beach.

“There are so many things that haven’t been given a great deal of thought by the . . . project,” said Joanne O’Byrne, president of Long Beach Area Citizens Involved, the oldest and largest residents’ group in the city.

Designers of the levee say the walls will not obstruct views nor hurt property values. The project’s environmental study also lists several alternatives for combatting graffiti, including murals and vines.

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The Long Beach City Council has yet to take a position on the levee project, but several council members say the recent rains are proof that the existing flood-control system works.

“If this latest series of storms hasn’t proved that the river can handle it, nothing will,” Councilman Robbins said.

But county public works officials warn that the recent storms, which they described as a “rather regular event” for the flood system, were not an accurate test of whether the river can contain a 100-year deluge.

And they worry about residents developing a false sense of confidence in a system that may one day fail and send water rushing across the region.

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“The storms that we had were relatively small compared to what the 100-year storm will be like,” Cadena said. “People should be aware that The Flood will be much worse.”


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