Detroit’s Jefferson Chalmers residents are concerned about their neighborhood’s new flood risk designation on Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) maps. (Courtesy of Mel Herrera-Baird)

At one time, being next to the water was an advantage to living in and owning a business in Jefferson Chalmers. 

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Access to boat slips on a property made easy access through the canals to the riverfront, and fishermen could take advantage of the waterfront parks.

Water has been part of the appeal of the historic neighborhood — until now. Flooded streets ruined cars, and basement flooding has become the norm as heavy rains continue to hit Detroit, forcing homeowners to spend thousands to sanitize living areas and replace household appliances while awaiting potential reimbursement for the disaster.

Those moving into the area can’t believe the costs. Longtime residents are drowning in the expense of continued natural disasters, and many of those who can afford to leave are selling their homes.

“They have come into this area, and they are experiencing price shock around what it costs to live in the city and operate in Detroit,” said Michelle Lee, a Jefferson Chalmers resident. “And I look at it like, ‘Did you think we were lying for all these years?’”

And the price is only going up.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released new flood zone maps in October, determining higher risk areas in Detroit for parts of neighborhoods like Jefferson Chalmers that have experienced recurring floods. Residents who have mortgages in these high risk areas will be required to add flood insurance, and homeowners without a mortgage are also being encouraged to add insurance.  Detroiters can search their address to determine the level of flood risk for their property. 

Insurance has been a heavy topic in Detroit for years. Detroiters had the highest auto insurance in the country, but rates were supposed to decrease after state legislation was amended. Most Detroiters have not had to purchase flood insurance, as previous maps indicated low-risk areas. However, the new maps place many Detroit households in higher-risk flood areas which will require homeowners with mortgages to pay an average of $800 more per year, slightly higher than the national average. Flood insurance is based on several factors, including the age of a home, the flood risk and type of coverage. The City of Detroit is enrolled in FEMA’s Community Rating System to encourage community floodplain management. Because of this program, Detroiters in high-risk floodplains automatically receive a 10 percent discount on flood insurance.

As the federal government determined the floodplain maps, residents say there is a broad lack of education and understanding on what these changes mean. They fear the future holds displacement for Detroiters as the cost of living increases with no resolution to prevent future flooding. Additionally, residents say FEMA’s recovery efforts in Detroit have not met the need.

Jefferson Chalmers (FEMA map screenshot)

FEMA’s new Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRM) became effective on Oct. 21 and placed portions of Jefferson Chalmers into Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHA). FEMA says mapping is a multi-year process that includes preliminary maps that were released in 2018. 

“When Wayne County/City of Detroit officials update their local hazard mitigation plans, these flood maps are an important tool to identify the characteristics and potential consequences of hazards, so they can set priorities and develop long-term strategies for avoiding or minimizing the undesired effects of disasters,” FEMA told BridgeDetroit.  

The City of Detroit told BridgeDetroit that “FEMA changes the maps all the time.” A City spokesperson, Georgette Johnson, said Detroiters could check online for information regarding insurance requirements and FEMA’s flood maps.

The new floodmap shows the level of risk for future flooding for communities, homeowners, business owners and investors to use for knowledge, but does not guarantee resources from FEMA should a flood happen. 

The City did not respond when asked how the maps have been used for City planning and development, infrastructure needs and flood prevention.

Even though FEMA doesn’t require homeowners to obtain insurance, lenders use FEMA maps to determine where there is a flood risk and create insurance mandates. Depending on the level of risk, the higher the insurance and the type of coverage required.

FIND OUT IF YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD HAS BEEN ADDED TO THE FEMA MAP

Lee, the Jefferson Chalmers resident, has worked in housing services for 20 years. But she said there were parts of the new adjustments that she still didn’t understand. She said residents need to be educated on what these changes mean so that they can plan accordingly.

She also fears for seniors in the area and said many residents are still trying to recoup from last summer’s flood damage. The thought of adding another bill to their monthly budget is simply overwhelming. She’s also frustrated, because the government has known about flooding issues in the area for years with little to no resolution in order to prevent placing further burden on residents.

“That is a huge issue from the federal level on down,” Lee said. “It’s a huge issue for municipalities like the City of Detroit who was completely unprepared for this mess.”

Lee is the director of housing and neighborhood services at Jefferson East Inc., a nonprofit serving five neighborhoods within Detroit’s East Jefferson corridor, including Jefferson Chalmers. Lee works with residents, both homeowners and renters, with financial literacy, home repairs and flood issues. She said there are many who have not been reimbursed from FEMA, and are living without furnaces. Many will not have heat for the impending winter.

Lee said many legacy Detroiters, or residents whose parents previously owned the home, don’t necessarily have paperwork that is required by FEMA for reimbursement. The lack of proper paperwork to prove ownership and purchase was an issue during previous emergency recovery for floods in Detroit in 2014. 

Jackie Richmond, a Jefferson Chalmers resident, said she doesn’t have a mortgage on her home. She received calls encouraging her to purchase flood insurance, but without a mortgage, she was told to pay the annual premium all at once — and that it had to be done through a credit card payment.

Richmond wants  FEMA to hold more public meetings to help residents understand the changes and said the last point of community engagement to inform the map process was in May. Though there’s little to debate whether Jefferson Chalmers has a risk of flooding, Richmond said she’d like information to be shared more frequently with residents. 

FEMA representatives say, however, that they have conducted outreach in southeast Michigan and Detroit.

“Throughout the mapping process, FEMA remained engaged with Wayne County communities, including the City of Detroit, to communicate these changes through Flood Map Open Houses and other community outreach events,” FEMA representatives told BridgeDetroit.

Richmond said she was contacted only by phone and when FEMA visited Detroit last summer to determine the severity of the flooding. They knocked on her door but never entered her home.

Richmond lost her furnace, washer and dryer during the summer floods, and said she was denied reimbursement by FEMA three times, including once through text message.

She was told possible reimbursement could be made for her furnace but she would need to provide more paperwork.

“I’m tired of jumping through hoops,” she said. “I just got off the phone.”

Richmond said she didn’t have receipts for appliances because they were bought by her parents, who are now deceased.

“They make you jump through too many hoops to get the money,” Richmond said. “And then you’ve got DWSD (Detroit Water and Sewage Department) blaming GLWA (Great Lakes Water Authority) and GLWA blaming DWSD, and we’re caught in the middle. We don’t care whose fault it is, we just want the problem fixed and to be reimbursed for what we lost.”

The Great Lakes Water Authority is responsible for water pumps that reduce the chance of flooding in the area. GLWA shared that two pumps, including Conners Creek near the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood, were temporarily inactive during the June floods. 

Even though $155 million in federal aid was sent to southeast Michigan, Detroiters believe they are treated differently. Lee said one of her newer neighbors moved to Detroit from Midland after the dam collapsed and told Lee that the process for reimbursement in Detroit has been much more intense.

“When we were in Midland, we didn’t have to fill out one form,” Lee said of her exchange with her new Detroit neighbor. 

Lee said recovery issues from flooding in Detroit are similar to that in other communities with dense Black populations.

“FEMA has thoroughly failed in their ability to be able to translate what is needed in urban communities, communities that are mostly people of color,” she said.  

Olivia Lewis is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. She was formerly a reporter for the Battle Creek Enquirer and the Indianapolis Star. She has also worked in philanthropy for the Kresge Foundation, the Council...

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