Ocala, Florida, retains Class 3 rating
The city of Ocala, Fla., has retained its Class 3 Community Rating System, which is basically the ISO rating for flooding and helps those in the city receive lower flood insurance costs.
But, according to Sean Lanier, city engineer and director of engineering water resources, even better is the fact that the rating means the city is more resilient. Lanier explained the Community Rating System is a voluntary program supported by the National Flood Insurance and gives an indication of the risk of floods.
The CRS is based on a points system and the more points a community receives, the better. However, in the class ratings, “the lower the number the better.”
One prerequisite is that the city has to have low ISO rankings in other departments, like fire and building inspection.
“Luckily, our other departments’ rankings were low enough that we met that prerequisite to get the Class 3 rating,” he said.
There are multiple items and different categories and programs that can be implemented to get points. For a Class 3 rating, it takes approximately 3,500 points, and if you get more than that, you can move to the next level.
Ocala first earned that rating in 2015, and Lanier said the city shared that rating with just one other city east of the Mississippi. There were only two cities that had the Class 3 rating.
“At the time, it was very rare,” he said, adding there were a couple with lower ratings but just the one other Class 3.
In the April 2022 report by Federal Emergency Management Agency, only five cities, including Ocala, received the Class 3 rating out of 1,500 communities. The other cities were Sacramento, Calif.; Avalon, N.J.; Sea Isle City, N.J.; and Charlotte, N.C. There were also four counties listed as having a Class 3 rating.
Lanier said one of the biggest point earners for Ocala was something it’d already done but had shelved and forgotten — a floodplain master plan.
He explained the city had a lot of flooding after a storm in 1982, so in 1984, officials hired a firm to do a master study. This study showed a lot of flood areas that weren’t mapped by Federal Emergency Management Agency. According to Lanier, in 1978-2008, there were no new FEMA maps, so when the city did its study, some areas were on the FEMA maps, but not all of them.
If the city declared it a flood hazard area with requirements of construction needing to be 1 foot of freeboard above the base flood elevation, that was worth a lot of points, according to Lanier. With the total amount of the area that the city declared to be a community determined flood area, “that really boosted our score,” he said. “That was the single biggest thing we had going for us.”
When Ocala first joined CRS, it was about a Class 8 rating and listing its mapping along with FEMA’s gave them 1,000 points.
Lanier explained the city of Ocala differs from a lot of Florida communities in that stormwater doesn’t drain to a river or to the sea. “When we have stormwater runoff, it goes to low areas and ponds. We have a closed basin system, and the water will pond at the low areas within each basin.”
In developing the floodplain management, the city used drainage retention areas where the water stays versus detention ponds where the water gets drained out.
One criterion for maintaining the rating is ensuring the same amount of discharge to the downstream as you did before it was developed.
In Ocala, officials have to catch the whole storm, and it percolates into the ground and soaks in. So they had to make sure the ponds are bigger in new developments, and in older areas, they tried to do excavation projects, making the retention areas bigger. They also included pumping systems that will pump from a smaller to a larger retention area to avoid flooding the neighborhood.
He said the topography of the city with a population of about 50,000 to 60,000 has high ridges and multiple basins — about 320 defined basins. Lanier came to the city in 2012, shortly after Tropical Storm Debbie, which was a 10-year storm hit. Prior to Tropical Storm Debbie, an unnamed storm came and flooded portions of the city, and when Debbie hit, it flooded the same areas. He said the city council mandated him with fixing the flooding and to start with those areas.
So he started working on those areas and on the CRS at the same time to improve the resiliency of the city.
The city started a stormwater utility in the 1980s where customers pay a stormwater fee that funds stormwater improvements, and the city used the funds to expand the system and make improvements to deal with areas known for flooding.
Ocala has two water management districts — St. John’s River Water Management District and Southwest Florida Water Management District — and it has to observe both of them. In 2018, Hurricane Irma came through and dropped down on I-75 in the middle of Ocala. East of I-75 received 11 inches of rain, and west of I-75, there was 11.5 inches of rain in less than 24 hours.
“It tested our systems and a lot of areas that flooded during Debbie were either very lightly impacted or not impacted at all. I could go back and look at my top priorities, and it was addressed so it was a success — that was satisfaction knowing that the system actually worked,” Lanier said.
Lanier explained Florida doesn’t follow the International Building Code; the Florida Department of Environmental Management made its own building code called the Florida Building Code.
Within the Florida Building Code, there’s a flood ordinance, and Ocala modeled its flood ordinance building code to the state’s “with a few tweaks for Ocala.” It has specific limitations on any construction in the floodplain and talks about the 1 foot above the freeboard — the lowest level of residential building must be above the base flood elevation. The base flood elevation is the flood that has a 1% chance of being equaled to or exceeded in any given year — the 100-year flood.
If garages or basements are below the BFE, then flood vents are necessary. Points are given for maintaining elevation certificates on all buildings built in flood hazard areas before and after the application date.
There’s an annual review of floodplain management and an audit every five years. Lanier said because Ocala has a Class 3 rating, it is audited every three years. It just had an audit completed in April and maintained its Class 3 rating. He said in the annual review city employees may just pull random permits — some look at all the building permits, but mainly in the flood area, and then spot check the elevation certificates. In the audit, they literally pull all the permits and certificates.
“If you allow any substandard construction within the flood hazard area, it increases the risk of something flooding,” he said.
Flood response plan
The city has a flood response plan with a standard operating guide, which talks about bringing out pumps and pumping the flood water and an all hazard response manual, which advises how to deal with hurricanes.
In order to keep its points, the city has to perform exercises and pull out the pumps and drill employees on how to use the equipment.
“It helps keep responses honed. We try to do that right before hurricane season starts,” Lanier said.
The city doesn’t have a specific flood warning system, but there’s a Code Red system for storm warnings that residents can sign up for to receive alerts for storms and other emergencies.
Many things are worth points: city improvement projects, outreach to the community regarding flooding issues, even if having a dam and “dam plan.” Lanier said the city of Ocala doesn’t, but its county — Marion County — has a dam.
He said for Ocala the biggest thing that helped its rating was the community determined flood hazard area mapping the areas not shown on the FEMA FIRM maps, the floodplain ordinance in the building code and the flood response plan.
“The whole purpose is the risk of flooding is low — that’s why you get the discount,” he said.
The city’s response, as well as its mitigation and construction methods, plays a part. By controlling development, officials make sure they’re not putting out more water than before the development.
Lanier said they are working toward a Class 2 rating. “We are trying to get to the next level; we were only a few hundred points shy from a Class 2.”
The lower the CRS rating, the higher the discount — a Class 9 gets a 5% discount while a Class 2 gets a 40% discount. The Class 3 rating that Ocala has gives a 35% discount on insurance.
Lanier advises other communities to join CRS. It’s a voluntary program with the National Flood Insurance program and allows people to buy flood insurance within the city.
“The whole program contributes to the resilience of your community,” he said. “The CRS rating is a pathway to keep you on task. You earn points for building resilience into your community. Flood insurance costs go down, but it lowers the risk of your community.”
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