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Milton-Freewater celebrates removal of flood zone designation

Earlier this month, residents of Milton-Freewater watched as flames destroyed paper, maps and photos.

The town had gathered at the Lazy MF BBQ for a bonfire — a flood insurance paper-burning bonfire.

Three years ago the Federal Emergency Management Agency declared virtually all of the city a flood zone. That designation was repealed in May after repairs to the levee system were made with a $2.85 million bond from 2010.

And as of Sept. 20, Milton-Freewater no longer had to pay high flood insurance rates.

City planner Gina Hartzeim called the flood zone designation of 2010 the “perfect storm.”

The last major repairs to the four levee segments through town — built in 1951 — were made in 1967. In 2007, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stopped certifying the levee system, stretching along nine miles of the Walla Walla River, because of erosion and overgrown vegetation.

The flood district received $24,000 per year at the time, not enough to do even full weed maintenance. Two bond measures failed in 2007 and 2008 to repair the system.

Then, FEMA decided it needed to do a nationwide flood remapping.

“I think FEMA, too, quickly realized (the levee) was woefully underfunded,” Hartzeim said.

Without the resources to do full engineering studies throughout the nation, FEMA saw that Corps decertification and redrew its maps as if no levee existed.

Forced between paying for flood insurance and paying for repairs, residents passed the 2010 bond with over 80 percent approval. In the meantime, City Manager Linda Hall got a reduced insurance rate for the town. The deal would have expired by next year, tripling and quadrupling people’s rates.

With the late Manford Anliker as chair, the water control board set out to fix the levee system.

Satisfying all the stakeholders in the repair was its own gigantic task. The Tribes, fish advocates, the Corps of Engineers and local, state and federal governments all had their own opinion on how the levee system should work.

“That process seemed easier in the beginning than what it turned out to be,” said city councilor and former water control board member Sam Hopkins-Hubbard, who hosted the bonfire. “All these different agencies were arguing their point, and they all thought their agenda was most important.”

Oregon Solutions, a group tasked by the governor to help solve complex community problems, entered into the picture and helped move repairs forward.

One disagreement was that fish advocates wanted vegetation along the levy, while the Corps policy was to have none. The Corps and environmentalists worked out a compromise where limited vegetation could grow within 15 feet from the bottom of the levee.

Residents chatted about their late water control board chair often during the bonfire earlier this month. Getting off the FEMA flood zone had become Anliker’s passion. He died in August, three months after FEMA changed its designation.

There’s still a sliver of properties along the river that have the flood zone distinction. Most, like Hopkins-Hubbard, are happily outside that shaded area on FEMA’s maps.

“My rates were about to jump to over $1,000 (per year),” he said. “We’re all pretty happy over here.”

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Contact Natalie Wheeler at nwheeler@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0836.

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Milton-Freewater celebrates removal of flood zone designation. East Oregonian. November 1, 2013.