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Achieving CRS Class 5: Learning from Leon County, FL

April 18, 2023
Susanna Pho, CFM

Meet one of floodplain management’s trailblazers, Nawfal R. Ezzagaghi. Nawfal is the Director of Environmental Services and the Floodplain Manager in Leon County, Florida. The county is home to the state capital, Tallahassee. In Nawfal’s opinion, Leon County has “the best of both worlds – the amenities and opportunities of a large city, with the charm of a small southern town.”

Since he wears multiple hats, Nawfal juggles a large list of priorities. As Environmental Services Director, Nawfal’s main concerns are conserving and protecting the land and natural ecosystems, while not inhibiting growth. He works hard to maintain a healthy and careful balance of environmental protections and development. As Floodplain Manager, Nawfal’s two main priorities are to protect residents in the County’s Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHAs) and to ensure residents understand flood risk. To do this, his team is fastidious about enforcing floodplain compliance and is very proactive about public outreach.

Adapting to a changing environment

As with many municipalities nationwide, development decisions made in the past have led to challenges in Leon County today. A century ago, the county developed many residential subdivisions on terrain that is susceptible to flooding. This was apparent after tropical storm Fay in 2008, which caused significant flooding in many neighborhoods. Floodplain management regulations for development address these conditions now, but it is difficult to mitigate entire historic neighborhoods established in floodplains and floodways. 

Becoming the first Hurricane Strong Community

After facing the repercussions from tropical storm Fay and several other hurricanes in back to back years, Leon County decided to take a more progressive and proactive approach to addressing these emergencies. Due to their hard work, they were recognized as the first Hurricane Strong Community in 2018. They built an excellent system for internal coordination across local agencies to provide a consolidated response in emergencies. Also, for floodplain management, Nawfal and his team coordinate with a robust community and media relations group, and partners with realtors, insurance brokers, and other key stakeholders to educate residents about flood insurance, mitigation, and more. This kind of diligent and intentional collaboration may look different in every community, but Leon County proved it is achievable.

Advancing in the CRS program

Leon County joined the CRS program in 2015 as a class 6. Once they were in the program, they realized that they may have been doing a lot of the work to qualify for class 5. Since it can be difficult to know exactly what qualifies, they worked closely with their CRS specialist to organize their next steps. After participating in a series of events, documenting policies and practices, and setting up a media and communications plan, they were thrilled to move up to Class 5!

As a result of upgrading to class 5, Leon County now saves approximately $117,000 per year in insurance premiums for their residents. That money does not directly benefit the county, but they view it as an investment in the well-being of their citizens and the community overall.

By participating in the CRS program, Nawfal learned that public awareness and outreach often is a lower priority than engineering solutions. However, keeping the public informed about flood risk, flood insurance, and the services that the government provides is just as important as more traditional technical work in floodplain management. This serves as a useful reminder for CRS communities with similar ambitions to evaluate their floodplain management programs and their approach to the CRS.

Building a strong foundation

The team in Leon County sets bold goals – and they are a fantastic example for floodplain management. Nawfal credits their success to their culture, noting “we’ve established a culture that promotes the free flow of ideas, especially upward – one that engages and empowers employees, promotes critical thinking, and recognizes their work. This results in a thriving community. It is one of the main things that a lot of communities overlook and it sets an environment where bold goals can turn into reality.”  We are excited to see how Leon County continues to innovate and pave the way for the future.

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