Kayaks drift under the Rogue River bridge at Shady Cove Thursday afternoon. FEMA threatened the city with probation over violations relating to improvements made by homeowners below the base flood elevation. - Bob Pennell

FEMA threatens Shady Cove

SHADY COVE — Citing violations of floodplain regulations, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has warned the city that it may be put on probation Nov. 2.

If that happens, National Flood Insurance Program policyholders will be charged an additional $50 when they sign up for insurance or when they renew their policy. If violations are not corrected, the city could face complete suspension from the insurance program.

The possibility of probation became public more than a week ago, when four warning letters arrived in policyholder mailboxes. So far, there have been no more letters reported, though federal regulations say that all policyholders will receive the notice at least 90 days before the potential probation date.

Shady Cove resident Jane Hagan, who received one of the letters, brought her concerns to the City Council at its last meeting.

"I understand that we're talking about the federal government, and the organization that performed so poorly in Hurricane Katrina," she said, "but I really want to know what this is all about."

City Administrator Elise Smurzynski said the city has been working with FEMA on properties the agency identified as having "egregious violations in compliance with floodplain regulations."

She said the violations relate to improvements made by homeowners below the base flood elevation.

"Primarily, things like the location of electrical, heat pumps, fully improved basements, water heaters and living space below flood elevation," she said. "Anything that would interfere with the flow of water, should you have a significant water event."

Rep. Greg Walden's office confirmed the Republican congressman was notified last month in accordance with FEMA policy. A spokesperson said he did not receive any notices concerning other towns in Jackson County.

City officials said they wonder why the letters would come without warning from FEMA's Lanham, Md., office, when the city has been in frequent contact with representatives at FEMA's Northwest regional office in Bothell, Wash.

Smurzynski said the city's FEMA representatives told her they knew nothing about the letters and requested a copy.

One of the letters was mistakenly sent to a policyholder in Trail. Smurzynski said a representative told her the original insurance agent must have made a coding error.

Smurzynski said the city was aware of the potential for probation.

"FEMA representatives said they would go that route if we did not show substantive compliance," she said.

Five of the 12 properties cited by FEMA already have been brought into compliance, she said, and at least three more are in the process.

"Getting nearly 50 percent of our properties resolved seems to me to be substantive," said Smurzynski, "but we need to hear from them what 'substantive compliance' is, and at this point they haven't responded to my inquiries."

Councilman Bill Kyle wanted to know if any of the affected properties had received the probation letter.

"I did talk with three of the homeowners," said Smurzynski. "All three have flood insurance and not one of them received this letter."

The properties were identified in 2001 when FEMA made one of its periodic community visits.

"At that time FEMA inspectors told the property owners what needed to be done," said Smurzynski, "and told us to wait until they had prepared their reports before taking any action."

Smurzynski said the city didn't receive any reports for more than a year, and that between 2001 and 2005 officials continued to ask FEMA what the city should do about the properties.

"There were a lot of changes in FEMA personnel," said Smurzynski, "and so, for almost four years we could never get anything definitive from them. Then we finally got a letter in the fall of 2006 telling us to send out notices of violation."

In subsequent months, Smurzynski was in almost daily contact with FEMA, getting instructions and attempting to comply with its requests. Then the city received the notice of a potential probation.

"Our representative has agreed to come down before the end of the month and help us with all of this," said Smurzynski.

In response to an e-mail sent by the Mail Tribune to FEMA's regional headquarters in Bothell asking for comment on the Shady Cove case, a FEMA representative said the agency was "looking into this and we'll be getting back with you."

"We've had issues with FEMA going all the way back to 1986," said Kyle. "Sometimes they sat on it for four years without responding to us. It's really a frustrating thing dealing with them."

According to FEMA records through June 30 of this year, Shady Cove has 89 flood insurance policies in force, covering $21.7 million in property, for yearly premiums totaling more than $37,000.

Since Jan. 1, 1978, FEMA has paid $41,847 in losses in Shady Cove.

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Bill Miller is a Southern Oregon freelance writer. Reach him at

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