George County Emergency Manager Nancy Smith leads county out of NFIP probation

(COURTESY: Henrietta Williams, from the December Issue of FPMD (Floodplain Management Division) Insider

George County, Mississippi is like home.

In this southern hamlet a smile and a handshake can seal a deal and strong relationships matter. Passersby’s stop for “Praise in the Park” on Saturday afternoons and have “Coffee with a Cop” at the neighborhood McDonald’s on any given weekday morning.

George County represents safety and familiarity to home and business owners alike. So, explaining the risk for flooding and the need to enforce the County’s Flood Damage Prevention Ordinance can be challenging. As Emergency Management Director, Nancy Smith explained “George County doesn’t have building codes. There are no records to pull from. Floodplain management regulations are the codes and set the standard.” Officials use the floodplain management regulations to issue permits and guide safe building practices of structures to protect residents and their property from the devastating effects of flooding.

Much of George County is in a high-risk or Special Flood Hazard Area due to the Pascagoula River and its tributaries that flow through it. Along the river sit fishing businesses and vacation homes with absentee property owners who live out of state. This created a special challenge for Smith, particularly when she served as Floodplain Manager, while also wearing the hats of Search and Rescue Coordinator, Assistant Fire Coordinator, 911 Coordinator and Director of Homeland Security.

During a routine Community Assistance Visit (CAV) from FEMA, violations were identified and ultimately led to George County being placed on probation. But over the course of 5 years, this resilient community worked with Mississippi Emergency Management’s (MEMA) National Floodplain Insurance Program (NFIP) Coordinator Stacey Ricks and FEMA Region IV Floodplain Management Specialist, Tamara Hansen, to remedy their code violations. As the new Floodplain Manager, Smith took the introductory field-deployed floodplain management course, Managing Floodplain Development through the NFIP within the first 2 years of the CAVShe then took and passed the Certified Floodplain Manager’s (CFM) exam and obtained her CFM certification.  She reached out to the State NFIP Coordinator’s Office for assistance with the first few site inspections, to ensure that she understood what she needed to review.

It took Smith a year just to research and locate each property owner, building files for each individual property to begin the task of bringing homes into compliance, but George County is now in good standing with the NFIP, and probation is a thing of the past. Tamara Hansen applauds Smith for her diligence as a new Floodplain Manager. Hansen notes the request for elevation certificates for building sites identified in the CAV tour, and the identification of non-compliant structures as key to remedying the situation. Nancy was then able to work with the property owners to bring them into compliance.  This resulted in remedies such as: installation of flood openings, elevation of air conditioning units, the elevation of a home and the demolition of a structure. “Through Nancy’s commitment to this process,” said Hansen, “and with the support of the Board of Supervisors, George County was able to address the unresolved items within the first 9 months of the 1-year probation period.”

Stacy Ricks adds, “The process of probation is not ideal, but in this case FEMA Region IV, the State NFIP Office, and the local coordination was awesome.  From this process the bond between the local community and MEMA was strengthened.  The community has a compliant program and support has grown at the local level for enforcement of the flood damage prevention ordinance, which makes the community more resilient to flooding disasters.”

Understanding the importance of having a strong floodplain management program, George County’s Board of Supervisors approved the hiring of a dedicated floodplain manager to focus solely on supporting the program and helping the community maintain continued compliance–one less hat for Nancy Smith to wear.

“Both FEMA and MEMA were there to help me through the process,” said Smith. “I built really good relationships with them and the Board of Supervisors and this worked to convey to businesses and the public, the importance of the NFIP.”