RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Stephen Flynn was talking about the area south of Sacramento. To the north of that city there are also vast tracts of housing developments on agricultural land surrounded by rivers and protected by levees, and many of the homeowners who bought there in recent years are discovering their homes may not be as safe as they thought.
From member station KQED, Tamara Keith reports.
TAMARA KEITH: A few decades ago, the neighborhood of Natomas was all rice fields surrounded by massive rivers. Now it's urban, with 80,000 residents, chain restaurants and subdivisions for miles. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency is now in the process of reclassifying the neighborhood as a Special Flood Hazard Area.
Standing on a levee overlooking a sea of rooftops, John Hess with the Army Corps of Engineers says new studies have found the levees here are more vulnerable than originally thought.
Mr. JOHN HESS (Army Corps of Engineers): It's a deep basin, meaning flood waters — should they get into the Natomas area — could be up to 25 feet deep on the southern end. If there were a breach of a levee, there's going to be a lot of water going into this area.
(Soundbite of skateboards on pavement)
KEITH: Kids in helmets show off turns and jumps at a skateboard park in the middle of a Natomas subdivision. A couple of blocks away, Alex Dewey and his family live in a house with a giant American flag out front.
Mr. ALEX DEWEY: Right now at this point, I don't trust the city of Sacramento. I don't trust them at all.
KEITH: Dewey, who is hearing impaired, says he can't understand why the city would allow so many homes to be built in an area at risk of flooding. And he says he didn't learn about the risk until six months ago, when news spread that the Army Corps was pulling its certification of the levees.
Mr. DEWEY: Oh, by the way guys, you're in the flood zone, welcome. I'm like, whoa, wait a minute. I went back to my escrow papers and it said, you're not in the flood zone. It said in the fine print, so small it said, FEMA can change the zoning.
KEITH: Dewey just recently bought flood insurance. But before Hurricane Katrina put the spotlight on flood risk, just 10 percent of homes in his neighborhood were covered by flood insurance. Now it's 25 percent.
Ron Stork, an advocate with Friends of the River, says a whole lot of people are making a mistake.
Mr. RON STORK (Advocate, Friends of the River): They actually are in God's flood plane, if not the FEMA flood plane.
KEITH: Stork says many of the worst floods in California and in the country have happened in areas shown on FEMA maps to be outside of the flood plane.
Mr. STORK: We define a flood plane as if whether or not you're in a FEMA flood plane or not, not whether or not you're in a real flood plane. And until we begin to map flood-prone areas more realistically, people will always be able to say, well, I'm not in a flood plane, don't bother me.
KEITH: FEMA officials say the reclassification of Natomas makes it likely that every resident with a federally backed mortgage will have to get flood insurance at a cost of $300 a year or more.
(Soundbite of advertisement)
Unidentified Woman: Convenience and accessibility make north Natomas a great place to live.
KEITH: Developers are now passing out this slick DVD to make sure no future residents can say they didn't know what they were getting into.
Unidentified Woman: But this desirable lifestyle could be at risk if the force of Mother Nature overcomes our manmade protections.
KEITH: Levee improvements were made in the 1990s that cost $100 million. But Sacramento City Councilman Ray Trethaway says the bar has moved and the reinforcements now needed will cost four times that much.
Mr. RAY TRETHAWAY (Councilman, Sacramento City): We're at risk, but by every measurement the levees are stronger than they've ever been since 1911, since they were built. On the other hand, we need to make them stronger over the next three to five years.
KEITH: The local flood control agency will soon ask property owners to help fund the levee improvements. For residents, it's another expensive consequence of moving to Natomas.
For NPR News, I'm Tamara Keith in Sacramento.