Losing money stinks—and we’re not talking about the measly $50 you lost to Wayne’s pocket aces in Friday’s poker game. We’re talking hundreds of dollars, maybe even thousands, unexpectedly snatched by some desk-surfing suit. The feeling’s familiar to any credit card holder who recently learned that interest rates are skyrocketing, regardless of your flawless personal credit record. Thanks for the bailout, folks.

That frustrated feeling also applies to many who live near rivers in Missoula County. Earlier this month, they learned that a drawn-out project by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to revamp the county’s 100-year floodplain maps might drown them in added expenses. The latest version of the maps affects an estimated 500 new parcels, and property owners face potential flood insurance payments anywhere between $300 and $1,900 a year.

One of those owners is Nick Kaufman, who took FEMA to task during a recent public information meeting. Kaufman, a former county floodplain administrator, told the modest gathering he laments waking up one spring morning to find his acreage near Butler Creek in need of costly coverage. State officials and contractors watched as Kaufman lobbed demands—more compassion, tighter inspection, etc.—at FEMA like water balloons.

This is the first time FEMA has updated local floodplain maps since 1988, and a lot’s changed. Namely, the agency revised standards on flood control structures in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Many local levee-like structures no longer qualify for certification. Apparently flooding on the Clark Fork poses as dire a threat as a category three storm. Who knew?

If FEMA reps thought they’d sail through an evening meeting on smooth waters, they’ve clearly never dealt with Missoula property owners. By the end of the presentation, FEMA Floodplain Management Specialist Marijo Brady matched Kaufman’s emotional protests with canned answers about agency standards. The repeated party lines were about as effective as a squirt gun at a paintball fight.

And why shouldn’t angered citizens turn the hose on FEMA? According to Missoula Floodplain Administrator Todd Kleitz, the maps in question were supposed to be completed in February 2006. When FEMA finally submitted its maps—this January—the agency mistakenly failed to certify Missoula levees on the Clark Fork River’s north bank. Now the 90-day public appeal period is on hold. The final maps and subsequent insurance requirements won’t go into effect for at least 10 months, but FEMA isn’t obligated to inform affected property owners when they do.

The FEMA situation stinks like raw sewage but, much like credit card interest rates, there’s little recourse for those affected. At this pace, there’s no telling who’ll be drowning in debt next.
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