A new requirement to build structures 18 inches higher off the ground than the federal flood elevation could help reduce insurance costs and flood risk, but has frustrated some contractors who argue it makes building on the island more expensive.

The city in May began enforcing a “freeboard requirement,” an ordinance mandating that new construction be 18 inches above the base flood elevation.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency manages the National Flood Insurance Program, the primary flood insurer for homeowners, and recommends cities adopt freeboard requirements, Director of Development Services Tim Tietjens said.

Other cities that had adopted freeboard requirements set them between 1 foot and 2 feet above the base elevation level, which varies depending on where you are on the island, he said.

The base flood elevation — the computed elevation to which floodwaters are anticipated to rise during a 100-year flood event — varies from about 11 feet to more than 15 feet on the island.

The new requirements are among things that could improve the city’s community rating score with the National Flood Insurance Program and reduce flood insurance costs across the board on the island by 5 percent, Tietjens said. Galveston’s rating is currently in Class 7, but could soon be improved to a Class 6, he said.

The city gets points for different flood mitigation efforts, which, combined, make up a community rating. People insured in flood zones on the island already receive a 15 percent deduction in their flood insurance premium rates, he said. If the city gets an improved rating from different changes it has made, including the freeboard mandate for new construction, the premium rates could fall even more.

Flood insurance premiums already are in the thousands of dollars a year for many homeowners and most insured commercial property owners, and some observers worry about increases as the federal flood program struggles with debt.

“It’s extremely wise for homeowners and prudent for a city to mandate it,” Tietjens said.

By 2020, the agency will likely require the 18-inch freeboard requirement as a minimum standard for new construction, he said.

But at least one builder said he wished the city had held off on adopting the new requirements. The new requirements have been a frustration for builders, especially on commercial properties, because of the added costs in materials and labor, Al Fichera of Fichera Builders Inc. said.

“We already are at pretty high extremes,” Fichera said. “Most cities only build 12 inches higher than the center of the street. Galveston is not like that.”

“Eighteen inches might not sound like a lot, but if it’s commercial, that’s adding 18 feet to a handicap ramp and adds three steps to the building.”

He estimated the new requirements added about $10,000 in construction costs for the homes his company builds, he said.

“It costs more and the labor is more,” Fichera said. “These are all things that make everything more expensive. It’s not deterring construction, it just costs more.”

Before adopting the ordinance, city staff met with FEMA staff and researched what it would mean for the cost of building on the island, Tietjens said.

A 2017 study produced by floodplain managers found the additional costs for building a 2,000-square-foot house were about $4,200, Tietjens said. The study found the additional costs were recouped in about 3.2 years from deductions in insurance premiums from building higher, he said.

The costs likely would go up, but the code update produced more benefits than harm, Walter Premirelli of Premrl Construction Builders said. The new requirements would make homes more resilient during storms and help with the cost of flood insurance premiums, he said.

“It’s a very minimum investment you have to do,” Premirelli said. “There are more benefits than costs.”

Marissa Barnett: 409-683-5257;


(4) comments

Chula Ross Sanchez

This is great news for the island. I applaud the City for making this move to achieve a better community rating with FEMA and lower our flood insurance rates.
It would have been even better if they had taken this step, like Bolivar and Brazoria, just after Hurricane Ike, when lots of new construction was happening.

At least the Recovery homes, built with Federal money, were built to higher standards with a 3’ freeboard and stricter codes for building materials. Those homes pay less insurance per sq ft for their superior ratings.

Exaggerating the increase in building costs with an 18” increase in building height is short sited, knowing it’s a good move for the commmunity to becoming more resilient, lessening the risk for flooding and returning to businesses and homes sooner after storms.

Maybe the next step is to increase wind codes, as the buildings get taller.

George Croix

"At least the Recovery homes, built with Federal money, were built to higher standards..."
Built with federal money...
"Exaggerating the increase in building costs with an 18” increase in building height is short sited..."
Increase in building costs...out of builder/owner's pockets

The building costs being 'exaggerated' are not ones GETTING 'Federal money''s not an exaggeration to say that getting OPM to pay for a house is cheaper for the ultimate owner, no matter what the cost, than digging the bucks out of their own pockets.

The merits of the stricter building requirements can stand by themselves but saving money versus getting it paid for by others is not one of them.

Michael Gaertner

Al's comment is pertinent. Commercial buildings will become disproportionatley more expensive and some sites that are now buildable will be rendered unusable. These are small sites that require handicapp access, parking and other components that relate to the transition between the gound and the finished floor. Broadway comes to mind. Since the maximum slope for an handicapped ramp is 1:12, Al is correct in that this requires eighteen more feet of ramp. Nevertheless, this is a good addition to the city requirements, I have always advised my clients to build at 36" above BFE to get the lowest insurance rate. By requiring everyone to participate, everyone gets lower rates.

Mike Box

Sounds like a good idea to the layman. Now let's be very stingy with the exceptions!

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