In one part of the town of Mariposa, the scene a month ago was something the residents had never seen.
Water from the Mariposa Creek watershed rushed into places it was not supposed to — up through the floor of a shop, through the 49er Shopping Center parking lot and into the sewer system.
The cause: heavy February rains that overwhelmed an old smokestack that was installed as a culvert half a century ago. The culvert collapsed.
The county declared a local state of emergency. Crews built sandbag walls to divert the water. It was the first time anyone recalled flooding in this part of town.
But, too much water in too little time is hardly unique in the county. The damage is typically confined to erosion on many of Mariposa's dirt roads, which consist of red clay.
In 1997, the Merced River got so high it deposited sand in the cash register of the El Portal tourism center, located in the northern part of the county. Rockslides or mudslides frequently close the roads into Yosemite National Park.
Still, the effects of this winter's rains have caught even lifelong residents, like Tina Ward, off-guard.
"It's just been nonstop rain," says Ward.
Water pooled by her garage and a retaining wall slowly yielded to the will of the hillside behind her home.
"Bought the house in July and, being in a drought, we never would have thought too much of erosion and plus they had the wall already up and the plants planted," she says.
As rain soaked the foothills day after day, she began to wonder what would happen if her home suffered damaged.
"Some of the silt's coming down and the wood is starting to kind of break and move and I thought, 'I wonder if we have flood insurance?' " she says.
Mariposa is the only California county not in the National Flood Insurance Program.
That's surprising for Ward.
"I mean, it would definitely be something we would want to have, if it was there, unless, it was ... not affordable," she says.
Mariposa and Amador County are in the foothills, and each has a creek that runs through town.
InterWest Insurance provided a flood quote of $450 for a home in Amador County but had no estimates for an area not in the NFIP.
WNC Insurance Services' Norman Henrich says his company is the largest flood insurance carrier for homes outside of NFIP zones.
"You're going to see those policies ranging from $1,500 to $3,000 if it's in a good area that doesn't have historical flooding to it," he says.
For areas with a history of flooding, Henrich says the price goes up dramatically.
"The underwriters will ask, 'Has it flooded in the past, and if it has you're going to see much higher premiums,' " he says. "It could be in the $5,000 to $6,000 range if you can even get it with prior flood-loss."
WNC was the only company of a dozen local and national brokers, including Lloyds of London, SWBC and AIG that would provide an estimate, though it has underwritten no policies in Mariposa.
The Mariposa County Board of Supervisors voted against joining the flood insurance program in 1997 and 2006. The board cited property rights, a reluctance to change building codes and concerns that residents would be forced to buy insurance.
"Our county has traditionally maintained — pretty rigidly — the rights for people to use the property as they see fit provided that there's no harm to neighbors," says Dallin Kimble, Mariposa's Interim County Administrative Officer. "So, a home or business owner may choose to accept the risk of building in a floodplain [and] they have to take some action to protect their own property from damaging others."
The county has updated some zoning codes to require structures in floodplains to have vents to allow water to move through without carrying the building away. Trailers must be tied down.
Only 90 properties have a building that has a value of more than $5,000. There are more than 14,000 parcels in the county. About 900 are partially in a flood plain.
Floyd Davis has owned one of those properties since 1979. It's along Mariposa Creek, which was roaring after the heavy rains in February. But his home has never come close to flooding even though a United Geological Survey map said it could.
"It included my house and when I tried to get a refinance on my house, the loan company won't loan it because it's in a floodplain," he says.
Floyd says the map identified elevation in increments of 50 feet. So, to the bank, his house might as well have been in the creek instead of 17 feet above it.
He had two choices: find private flood insurance or figure out how to change the map. He chose to change the map.
Eric Simmons is an engineer with FEMA. He says that's not uncommon.
"FEMA processes thousands of letter-of-map amendments a year," says Simmons. "The cost for that letter of map amendment is zero on the FEMA end. But, often there is a cost to the property owner to develop an elevation certificate, or in some cases hire a surveyor to document what elevation their structure or house is in."
Fortunately for Davis, he's an engineer. The process sounds complicated.
"You just cut a slice out and the top has got a ruffle," says Davis. "You invert that and the channel's got a certain configuration. Based on that configuration and doing some more engineering calculations, I come up and say, 'OK, here's the level of that water based on the parameters that FEMA has set up."
Davis says it took three full days to survey and map his property. It took about two months for his map amendment request to be approved.
Anyone else would have been out at least $1,000 for engineers and surveyors.
After this year's rains, the board of supervisors is once again looking into Mariposa County's participation in the National Flood Insurance Program.
WNC's Henrich says he typically sees no more than 30 requests nationwide for flood insurance coverage for homes not in a FEMA insurance area.
He says more than 50 percent of policies the company does underwrite result in a loss for the company.
The company has received no requests for coverage from Mariposa.
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