Llano County’s 7-year battle to correct FEMA flood maps

Investigations

Investigative Summary:

This month marks one year since historic flooding hit the Hill Country. But, long before the flood hit, KXAN learned Llano County had gone back and forth with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to correct errors on the county’s flood maps adopted in 2012. Llano County says many families are paying for flood insurance who are not in an actual flood zone, and some families are in a flood zone, but don’t know it.

LLANO COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — Standing on an old, creaky wooden floor in her studio where she gives music lessons to locals, Keenan Fletcher looks down and draws the bow across all four strings of her violin. The instrument resting under her chin has been passed down from generation to generation.

Keenan Fletcher
Violinist Keenan Fletcher in her teaching studio in Llano with the violin she saved from the flood (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

It’s one of several she grabbed before wading through water with her husband and two daughters to escape their flooded home on Flag Creek Drive in Llano. That chaos happened during the early morning hours of October 16, 2018.

“Within minutes, we had waist-high water,” Keenan said.

Their worst fear was playing out. The Fletcher family had learned their home was prone to flooding a week after buying it in 2005. It was built 20 feet under the flood zone and had flooded twice before.

The good news was the Fletchers had flood insurance. But, since they had not budgeted for it when they bought the home, they had to go with the cheapest policy, which was about $500 a month. They said it did not cover the valuables inside the home.

Fletcher's flooded home
The Fletcher’s flooded home on Flag Creek Drive on Oct. 16, 2018 (Courtesy Toby Fletcher)

In contrast, Llano County said some people are paying for flood insurance who don’t need it.

“There are not many people who are aware of how bad the maps are currently and how exaggerated these maps are,” said Cristy Vaught, Llano County Flood Plain Administrator.

Vaught said county commissioners reluctantly adopted the FEMA flood maps in 2012 knowing they were not accurate but planned to work with the agency to make the corrections.

FEMA presented a preliminary map to Llano County in 2015 which included updates to the main Llano River, but left out the tributaries. The county requested a base level engineering study on the unstudied creeks which FEMA conducted and completed in 2017. It showed a major decrease in the flood zone. However, the results of the study have not been officially added to the map, which means property owners in the old flood zone are still required to have flood insurance.

While FEMA was working through the process to finalize the map so it could be adopted, Llano County was hit with its most devastating flood since 1935. In January, the county told FEMA it wanted to use results from the historical flood on the map.

FEMA Engineering Study
Gray area represents the new flood zone along Hickory Creek, green area is the old flood zone (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

“We’ve got this data fresh on the ground. We’ve got drift lines. We have soil saturation. We have rainfall data. We have flow rates. We have all this information that could be incorporated into this base level engineering study,” Vaught said.

Llano County asked for more time to finish collecting the information, but FEMA wants to move forward without it.

“We had already taken longer than we would’ve liked for the Llano River and the data they already submitted to us,” said Diane Howe, FEMA Risk Map Lead. “We wanted to get that into effect.”

KXAN spoke with Howe and FEMA engineer Larry Voice via FaceTime. The two sat next to each other and agreed that seven years is a long time to get a county’s flood maps corrected.

“It’s longer than we’d like to take, but there are others that take longer,” Voice said.

Howe said the county can still request updates at any time through what’s called a ‘Letter of Map Revision,’ but Llano County does not want to adopt a map it knows is lacking.

“We have the data, we just need to be able to implement it into the map in order to come up with a good set of maps that we can stand behind,” Vaught said.

Fletcher home
Toby and Keenan Fletcher’s empty home on Flag Creek Drive in October 2019 (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

The Fletchers now know the importance of checking the FEMA flood maps and encourage everyone to take the extra step before buying a home or renting.

As Toby stands in the doorway of his old, flooded home that has been stripped down to the studs, he said he rarely comes by here anymore.

“Your kids grew up here, and now it’s nothing,” Toby said with a slight crack in his voice. “It’s really kind of emotional sometimes — I get kind of choked up about it.”

Part of their flood insurance payout was spent paying off the mortgage on the home they cannot return to. The rest is going toward a new home that’s being built on the opposite side of town. They picked one of the most elevated lots in Llano — far away from a flood zone.

Photojournalist Juan Salinas, Producer Rick Taylor, Investigative Producer Anthony Cave, Digital Executive Producer Kate Winkle and Digital Special Projects Developer Robert Sims contributed to this report.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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