Madison residents fight for help after flood zone declaration costs them big time

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MADISON, Ala. - Residents of a Madison neighborhood have found their monthly bills skyrocketing after being labeled a flood zone during a FEMA remapping process.
They came to us worried that the city wasn't doing enough.But over the course of our Taking Action investigation, residents discovered they were in the middle of a much bigger bureaucratic battle that goes all the way up to the federal government.Many of the people we spoke with, people who live on Lewis Lane in Madison, have been there for some time.

"Almost 20 years ago, we moved here from Michigan," said Ginger Zolynsky.

But only recently did their mortgage company tell them they'd have to start paying flood insurance -- up to hundreds of dollars a month.

"I don't understand in all the years how they can say this is a high risk flood zone," Zolynsky told us.

In addition to the cost of flood insurance, this also impacts property value.

"The problem is, if you're in a high risk flood zone, it depreciates the value of your homes. We've been told maybe your house will be worth 50% of what it was," Zolynsky said. After 20 years, that hurts. "I love this neighborhood, and it just makes me sad that we may not be able to stay here," she added.

The flood zone has cramped the plans of the families on this street.

Zolynsky tells us, "I've got an elderly mother who is a recent widow. My dad just died in February, and our plan was to help her empty her house as much as possible and get her in here."

They're worried their flood insurance will cost too much too fast. Frustrated, they took their concerns to the Madison City Council.

But representatives for the city seemed equally miffed.

"This is an issue that the city has been very proactive in, and I'm sitting here, my jaw dropping to the floor, wondering why we're being criticized for being proactive in a problem. Because we didn't have to do anything," said Madison City Engineer Gary Chynoweth.

It turns out the city is aware. In fact, the city engineer says they've disagreed with the FEMA flood map since FEMA started the remapping process in 2010.

"It's frustrating, but we're a regulatory group too, and we recognize they have to work within the confines of what they're told to do," said Chynoweth.

Chynoweth even gave us the tour of the problem areas. A stream is the big one. It's only a few feet deep, but he says in a once-in-a-100 year flood, things could get out of hand quickly.

"They're establishing a flood plain with the intent to protect people, but the people to them are numbers," said Chynoweth. "They're just insurance policies. But for us it's people that we go out and see and talk to them, and it's much more personal at our level."

So in some places, Madison has widened the stream, including behind Lewis Lane. They've also built big detention ponds. Special-built structures let flood waters in if they get too high, massive pipes let water flow in, and much smaller pipes reduce the speed of the flow out.

All of this is designed to reduce the flood plains up to 75 percent. But even with the improvements built, that's not the end of it. Next, you have to get FEMA to recognize them.

"The modeling will take two or three months, and the submittals and the back and forth with FEMA will take at least a year in total," said Chynoweth.

Until then, residents on Lewis Lane are told to hold tight. WHNT News 19 will be watching to make sure that wait gets rewarded.

We spoke with residents recently, who tell us they had a community meeting with Chynoweth, the city engineer, and they feel reassured. Chynoweth tells us he's confident FEMA will change the maps. He says FEMA just doesn't have the money to do the hydrology studies as thoroughly as they need, to get it right the first time.

He says in the meantime, he's recommended engineers to residents. Engineers can provide an Elevation Certificate, which can sometimes provide some relief from flood zone classification. The city of Madison will apply for largescale LOMA's or Letters of Map Amendment, to change the flood zones in their area, but individuals can also apply for them.

WHNT News 19 reached out to FEMA for comment, but they declined, pointing us to a state agency that helps with the mapping -- the Alabama Department for Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA). ADECA did not answer our request for an interview.