Outdated flood maps compund tragedies

BY SUSAN KIM | Baltimore, MD | October 24, 2000


Many of the 40,000 South Florida residents who were impacted by Oct. 3 floods did not have flood insurance because they had no

idea their homes were at risk, according to a state official.

Outdated floodplains maps are making it hard for some to figure out if they're in a flood zone or not, said Jim Loftus, public

information officer for the Florida Emergency Management Agency.

Many floodplains maps out of date, according to hazard mitigation officers, who say it's common to find 30-year- old maps on which

entire communities aren't included, much less changes in the floodplains.

"In a heavy growth state like Florida, floodplains maps need to be updated because the floodplains can change every five years," said

Loftus. But in Florida -- and in some 9,000 communities nationwide -- the maps are sorely out of date. "That makes it hard for some

people to tell whether they're in a floodplain or not."

There are some 17,000 communities with flood-prone areas nationwide, and 9,000 of them need map updates, according to Bob

Watson, National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) coordinator in Wisconsin.

That would cost about $800 million, he said. A bill currently in the Senate calls for putting $15 million toward updating maps. This is

what Terry Smith, hazard mitigation officer in Minnesota, calls "a drop in the bucket," or what George Hosek, NFIP coordinator in

Michigan termed "a spit in the ocean."

On the other hand, Watson pointed out, it's the first time he can remember that Congress has proposed any increase in Federal

Emergency Management Agency money that would be specifically directed toward updating maps.

The maps are costly to produce because they are intricate, three-dimensional maps that show both the lateral ground area of a

floodplain and its depth. In most states, FEMA taps the Department of Natural Resources to produce the maps.

They're important because emergency managers use them as a tool for gauging response. Land use planners also need accurate

floodplains maps to make the best decisions about where to put bridges, roads, and power lines.

And many insurance companies, mortgage lenders, bankers are required by law to refer to floodplains maps when considering

loans. The banks are complying - but they're looking erroneous maps, said Watson. That means a home once mapped in a flood

plain may not be in a flood plain anymore. A homeowner or homebuyer can apply for a letter of exception if that's the case. FEMA

issues more than 15,000 waivers nationally each year, said Watkins, and he estimates that $7.5 million - half of the proposed Senate

increase - is spent processing them. "Money is spent on technical evaluation contractors that administer requests for exception. Three

firms get about $5 million each. Probably half the work they do is issuing those letters."

Or, a homeowner or homebuyer, thinking a residence is not in the floodplain, may not purchase adequate insurance.

Accurate flood maps are also important on a local officials because they help them make decisions about disaster mitigation, said

Smith. "Local units can't make decisions with inadequate data. And I believe that all mitigation is local."

It's a problem that's not going to go away; in fact, it's going to get worse as terrain rapidly changes across the nation.

Development and wetland removal are just two factors that affect the size and shape of floodplains. For example, in Milwaukee, WI,

growing development has boosted runoff, which has increased flooding. In southeastern Wisconsin, there are many neighborhoods

where residents are living on floodplains that were not floodplains 30 years ago.

"In rapidly developing areas like Milwaukee, the maps are 15, 20, 30 years old, and the terrain has changed," said Roxanne Gray,

Wisconsin state hazard mitigation officer. That means the maps are a poor tool for land use planning. "A community may have an

area they really shouldn't be allowed to develop. But if it's not officially documented as being on a flood plain, it's much harder to

prevent a developer from going ahead. You've got to have some documented evidence to hang your hat on."

In Wisconsin, flood damage soared in the 1990s, according to a Sierra Club report that said communities in that state were inundated

with about 25 times more flood damage than they suffered in the 1980s. From 1990 to 1999, the president declared seven Wisconsin

floods major disaster, compared with three in the 1980s and four in the 1970s.

In the 1990s, flooding caused $1.3 billion in damage, compared to $56 million in the 1980s - a drought-ridden decade for the state --

and $258.6 million in the 1970s. (The report adjusts figures for inflation.)

The report blames urban sprawl, wetlands destruction, and outdated floodplains maps. Forty percent of Wisconsin residents are

paying $500 or $600 a year for flood insurance even though their local zoning maps indicate that their houses are not in a flood plain.

That means 40 percent of the state's maps are out of date, said Watson. He estimated that at least 200 of the 550 Wisconsin

communities with known flood-prone areas need better maps.

In some states, communities are taking the option of hiring a subcontractor to update their flood plains map, then submitting it to

FEMA for the required approval. But disaster officials acknowledge that many communities most vulnerable to flooding don't have

the ready cash around to take that option.

And even communities able to pay for their own flood maps, they may not have the $10,000 needed to print the map in the official

FEMA format. "FEMA is looking at new ideas and new technology to produce an official map," said Watson. "They do have to try to

maintain consistency."

"It's tough to say what the answer should be," said Smith. "We have to do a better job of convincing people that what we do makes a

difference, that if we don't have good information, we're not making good decisions."


Related Topics:

Solutions for flood insurance

What's changed, what hasn't at FEMA

How US flood insurance works


More links on Disaster Planning

More links on Flooding

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