The tree-shaded Garvin-Garvey House on Wharf Street – like much Church of the Cross and most of Old Town Bluffton along the May River – has a 1% chance of flooding during a 100-year flood. GWYNETH J. SAUNDERS

Thanks to modern technology and a re-evaluation of the town’s flood hazards by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a number of Bluffton residents might find themselves paying less for flood insurance as of March 23.

According to Richard Spruce, Bluffton’s chief building official and certified flood plain manager, there are two reasons for this.

“With the way FEMA has changed the map, the flood zone is getting lower,” he said. “And in addition, the town is considering requiring a 3-foot freeboard. The more freeboard required, the more savings on your flood insurance.”

“Freeboard,” a term used in many fields for similar reasons, is defined as “the factor of safety usually expressed in feet above a flood level for purposes of flood plain management,” according to changes being made to the town code. In construction, a freeboard foot is 12 inches.

At the Jan. 12 town council meeting, Heather Colin, director of growth management, introduced the first reading to consider amendments to the town’s Code of Ordinances concerning flood damage protection.

She said that approximately 5% of the town is in a flood zone, according to current maps. When the new base flood elevation ranges go into effect, there will be a reduction to 3%, with most of the flood zones located within Palmetto Bluff and along the river.

“Overall base flood elevation is lowering by five feet,” said Colin. “The additional freeboard will reduce flood loss, reduce insurance rates. The more freeboard required by town or county, the lower the insurance rate.”

A base flood elevation (BFE) is the elevation that a flood is expected to reach during what is referred to as a 1% annual chance flood or 100-year flood.

What does all this mean to the average homeowner currently sitting in a 5% flood zone?

“If you built right at the required flood level, the normal house is 2,100 square feet with $200,000 insurance on the house and $80,000 on the contents. It’s going to run you an estimated $2,100 a year,” Spruce said. “Right now, the Town of Bluffton has a 1-foot freeboard requirement. That drops it down to about $1,600 a year. The flood zone is dropping 5 to 6 feet, and that means your house is going to be 5 to 6 feet above the new flood level, so then it would drop to around $600 a year.”

In other words, because the new maps are more precisely defined, it shows that the anticipated base flood elevation is not as high as was previously determined. It’s like raising your house 5 to 9 feet above flood level without literally raising your foundation.

Although the council presentation focused on how the ordinance changes relate to residents within Bluffton’s jurisdiction, the FEMA changes and insurance impacts will affect all of Beaufort County and its municipalities on March 23.

The additional two feet of freeboard will aid a number of factors as they were listed in the proposed ordinance change:

1. Reduces flood losses in the habitable portion of homes so that citizens can return home faster;

2. Benefits citizens, as they will receive improved flood insurance rates;

3. Most of Bluffton’s construction located in the special hazard flood zones are new construction areas with no unregulated areas affected; and

4. With the additional 2 feet of freeboard recommended there should be less drastic height deviations between new and existing construction.

What prompted the FEMA’s re-evaluation and the ordinance changes?

“We’re working on 1986 maps that are almost 40 years old. The technology FEMA is using of surveying methods with Lidar and survey maps has gotten so much better that they can really drill down,” said Spruce. “The old maps were blobs. The new maps almost look like a sawtooth. They’re not guesstimates.”

“Lidar” stands for Light Detection and Ranging, and is a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure ranges (variable distances) to the Earth. Lidar can see through thick forest cover right down to solid ground, and has helped scientists discover abandoned structures and settlements, such as ancient Mayan settlements in Guatemala. More familiar technology that does similar tasks are radar, which transmits radio waves, and sonar, which uses sound echo.

One of the concerns expressed by Councilman Larry Toomer at the council meeting dealt with sea levels rising.

“Was that taken into consideration with new standards?” he asked. “With our proximity to the river, the salt water is rising to where it never has before in my lifetime on a regular basis.”

Colin said it was taken into consideration.

“That was the reason for staff to recommend moving from 1 to 3 feet just to be above that minimum,” said Colin. “And there’s nothing keeping someone from building even higher, as long as their POA or HOA approves. All of that was taken into consideration with historical data, and FEMA has been working on that for at least 10 years.”

Spruce said scientists are predicting a sea rise. “The best I could understand they are predicting, you’re looking at maybe an inch rise every 50 years, but that’s where the freeboard plays in. You’re at least 12 inches above what FEMA says you have to be now,” he said.

Spruce offered a piece of advice for homeowners: “If you’re thinking ‘I’m moving out of a flood zone, I’ll cancel my flood insurance,’ it’s not recommended,” said Spruce. “If you’re close to water or close enough, I’d recommend you keep your insurance.” 

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.