Developer Jerald E. Andrews is preparing for a potentially devastating flood even if it is the fifth year of drought.
Andrews has trucked in 28,000 cubic yards of dirt so he can raise his property on Firestone Boulevard in Downey as much as 3 1/2 feet before he builds a shopping center. The flood-control work will cost about $150,000, Andrews said.
The developer is one of the first in the area to act to satisfy new flood regulations, which are scheduled to take effect next year. The regulations will require developers working in vulnerable areas to elevate new buildings or provide other protection from a 100-year flood.
Andrews said he opposes the new regulations, but added, "I knew what was going to come down the pike, and I felt I had to be prepared."
City officials and developers from Pico Rivera to Long Beach are also concerned, saying the new standards will significantly increase building costs and bring construction to a standstill.
"We're going through a recession. What you could have is a local depression," said Downey City Manager Gerald M. Caton.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is working on new flood maps that show where serious flooding would occur in cities from Pico Rivera to Long Beach in the event of a 100-year flood. Such a flood, which has a 1% chance of occurring in any given year, would cause waters to break out of the Rio Hondo and Los Angeles rivers and swamp surrounding communities, officials said.
When those maps are published next year, new building standards to protect property against flood damage will be put in place throughout much of the area.
New residential construction in flood-prone areas would have to be raised above projected flood-water levels, which could run as high as 15 feet in one area of Long Beach. Commercial properties could be raised or flood doors or shields could be installed to keep out water.
The regulations would also cover existing homes and other buildings that are significantly improved.
In addition, those buying property with federally insured loans would be required to obtain flood insurance. The insurance would cost about $250 a year for a home that could be rebuilt for $150,000, officials said.
Caton has organized 13 Southeast-area cities in the flood zone to campaign against the new building requirements. The cities are Bell Gardens, Bellflower, Carson, Cerritos, Compton, Downey, Lakewood, Long Beach, Lynwood, Montebello, Paramount, Pico Rivera and South Gate.
City officials argue that the requirements are too severe, given the fact that the Army Corps of Engineers has proposed building concrete walls atop levees along the Rio Hondo and Los Angeles rivers to handle waters from a 100-year flood. Bridges would also be raised.
The project, which has received preliminary congressional approval, would do away with the need for the new building requirements and flood insurance, officials said.
But federal, state and county officials would still have to find funding for the $337-million project. If all goes smoothly, the project could be completed in late 2001, Project Manager Stuart H. Brehm estimated.
"If there was no solution to the problem, that would be one thing," Caton said. "But since there is a solution, it makes no sense to put these onerous flood-management requirements in today just to do away with them tomorrow." Caton said the group does not oppose the flood insurance requirement because property owners in the flood-prone areas face a risk and need protection against financial loss.
So far, local officials have not had much success against the new regulations. Last year, they persuaded then-U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson to make a legislative bid to forestall the new requirements. It failed.
The Corps of Engineers in 1987 first announced that the Southeast and Long Beach areas need more flood protection than previously thought. Federal flood officials insist that actions must be taken to protect property as long as there is a danger of flooding.
"They need new flood regulations," said Henry Chau, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
City officials are regrouping. They have hired the University of Southern California's School of Urban and Regional Planning to produce a study of the economic impact of the new building regulations on the area's economy. Once they receive the results, city officials plan to approach area lawmakers again to try to block the regulations, Caton said.
Meanwhile, experts have revised their projections of how waters would breach the banks of the Rio Hondo and Los Angeles rivers. As a result, large portions of several cities are no longer classified as flood-prone areas.
In Bell Gardens, for example, the first maps released by federal officials in 1989 indicated that 50% of the city would be swamped by a 100-year flood. Now officials estimate that only 5% of Bell Gardens would be flooded, which means the pending building regulations and insurance requirements would apply only to 5% of the city.