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A Comeback County

December 1, 2016
Reprinted from NFIP/CRS Update Newsletter, October/November 2016

“Jersey County has traveled a very long way to become one of the best floodplain management communities in Illinois,” says Cindy Cregmiles, Jersey County Floodplain Administrator.

The unincorporated, rural county in southwestern Illinois joined the National Flood Insurance Program in 1978. But in the face of a strong anti-zoning and anti-building code sentiment among its residents, it struggled to exercise oversight of development within its jurisdiction. For many years even the floodplain areas—along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers—were similarly unregulated. And that development was suffering flood damage as a result: since 1987 over 1,500 flood damage claims had been paid on properties in the County, totaling around $15.5 million. “We were considered one of the worst counties in Illinois due to lack of supervision of development in the floodplain,” Cregmiles explains.

The county was placed on probation from the NFIP in 2001, citing 42 structures as being in violation of the county’s floodplain ordinance. Exacerbating the problem were more than 250 structures within the County that had suffered repetitive flooding and filed repeated insurance claims for that damage. A couple hundred leased cabins on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land along the Illinois River and Piasa Creek also suffered repeated flooding. Eighteen of the cabins were “severe repetitive loss” structures, made infamous in an NBC report, “Fleecing of America,” in 2002. One cabin owner reportedly had collected one quarter of a million dollars in claims payments.

In response to the probation action, County officials worked hard in a massive effort to regain supervision of floodplain development. They established a full-time floodplain administrator, supported extensive staff training, found ways to remedy all the violations, developed a multi-jurisdiction hazard mitigation plan, assessed the repetitive loss problem, and committed—with funds, personnel, and policy—to effective management of the floodplain areas.

In 2005 the County was removed from probation and achieved good standing with the NFIP. Only three years later, in 2008, Jersey County’s floodplain management had progressed to the point that the County was able to join the Community Rating System. Now a Class 5, with 25% premium reductions, the County’s residents save about $25,000 annually.

“The CRS program has encouraged us to do an even better job of taking care of our floodplain and regulating new development in hazardous areas,” Cregmiles says.

To mitigate its flood hazard, Jersey County applies a whole range of CRS-credited activities such as higher regulatory standards (two feet of freeboard, building setbacks), outreach projects to promote public awareness of flooding; using a geographic information system (GIS) and sophisticated mapping data; and working to clear buildings out of its floodplains.

“The CRS gives you a standard floodplain management format to follow. It provides you with information you need to implement higher standards and tells you things you can do,” Cregmiles explains.

Using the GIS mapping data, relocation, elevation techniques—and prompted by the CRS—the County has made great progress on reducing its exposure to repetitive flood losses. “We have been able to reduce the number of repetitive loss structures to 29—a huge improvement,” says Cregmiles. “And we have mitigated every one of our severe repetitive loss properties.” The at-risk cabins on Corps property likewise have been minimized: after removing 71 of them and elevating 58, only 90 of those remain.

“The CRS taught us how to involve and educate our public on ways to reduce damage to property and public safety,” Cregmiles adds.

In 2009 Jersey County served as one of the pilot communities in a field test of a new approach for crediting outreach and public awareness under the CRS. For the pilot project, Jersey County used the steps outlined in the proposed CRS approach to assess its existing public awareness efforts, determine what audiences needed to be receiving specific pieces of information, and figured out precisely what projects the County should do to carry out an effective outreach strategy.

The County thus got a head start on developing its own Program for Public Information, subsequently receiving CRS credit for that work. Among its outreach efforts are

  • Mapping service information on past floods;
  • Annual mailing to residents in the Special Flood Hazard Area with flood notices and safety tips, to bankers and insurance agents advertising our mapping service, and to all county residents who own property in Jersey County;
  • A website with a “Floods” tab with complete local information and links to outside sources;
  • PPI Committee meetings that are open to public;
  • Annual reports to County board;
  • Brochures on building rules and techniques; and
  • Notices about stream dumping regulations.

“The CRS was instrumental in prompting our County Board to approve the funding to put in a website for the entire community,” Cregmiles explains, “because we needed to get CRS information out to our citizens.”

Another plus from being in the CRS, according to Cregmiles, is being a part of the Illinois CRS Users Group, which gets together twice a year. It uses a roundtable format “so that we can all gather around and discuss our common problems and successes.”

Communities should recognize, she adds, that the CRS is all voluntary. “No one is making us do it. We do this for our citizens.”

“Other communities that are not participating in the CRS are certainly missing the boat,” Cregmiles concludes.

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