Flood mitigation grant may start flow of changes

In what may be the first step toward an attempted wholesale dismantling of some commercial developments in the Civic Center, the City Council Monday accepted federal grant money to develop a flood mitigation plan that may call for the removal of existing buildings from flood-prone areas.

The $150,000 FEMA grant will pay for the technical assistance necessary to develop the mitigation plan, which will include identifying the flood-prone areas in the city and the appropriate methods for reducing the risk of damage from flooding.

The national flood mitigation program helps local communities target properties that repeatedly flood, in an effort to reduce economic losses and the number of insurance claims paid.

Malibu has the second-highest number of repetitive flood loss insurance claims in the state, FEMA officials said. Properties that have had two or more claims in any 10-year period are considered high-risk properties.

To reduce the risk of flood damage, FEMA encourages local communities to use their power of eminent domain to remove buildings from those high-risk properties.

“FEMA is very interested in helping local governments identify lands that should never have been developed in the first place and should never be developed in the future,” said Martha Whetstone, western regional director of FEMA.

The city was awarded the grant largely as a result of efforts by Gil and Joanne Segel and other members of the Malibu Coastal Land Conservancy. Whetstone thanked the Segels Monday for alerting FEMA to the flooding in the Civic Center area. Officials from the agency then worked with city staff, under instruction from Mayor Pro Tem Carolyn Van Horn, to complete the research and paperwork for the grant.

Whetstone said she understood that city officials were focusing on certain damage-prone properties in the Civic Center.

“FEMA is interested in helping Malibu find the best possible use for vulnerable land,” she said. “Very often, the wisest thing to do is to allow properties to revert to their open, natural state as wetlands.”

Michael Armstrong, director of the federal flood mitigation program in Washington, D.C., said the plan could pay an environmental dividend, as well, if some of the Civic Center lands were returned to their former wetland state. He identified the Malibu Country Mart as a candidate for study, and Whetstone referred to the Chili Cook-off site as a focus of city officials.

“You don’t want to look only at existing structures as part of the repetitive loss, but also at land … if the [Malibu Creek] water is doing something it shouldn’t,” said Armstrong.

He also said the city would be able to apply for additional funds from FEMA and other federal and state agencies once the initial plan is completed. FEMA staff will work with city staff to prepare the mitigation plan.

The City Council members made little comment to FEMA officials other than to thank them for the grant and the opportunity to be prepared in advance of a disaster.

But a large group of Coastal Land Conservancy supporters applauded each of the federal official’s comments.

Marcia Hanscom, a member of the conservancy’s board, called the grant “a new way of thinking.

“This is a huge opportunity for Malibu … a turning point in how we look at and interact with the natural forces here,” said Hanscom.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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