An ambitious plan to update the nation’s 92,222 Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs) is going slower than originally planned, but it is still on track to deliver a hurricane-sized hit to home builders in certain parts of the country.
Launched five years ago, the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s (FEMA) Flood Map Modernization program was established to bring uniformity to the nation’s widely divergent floodplain measuring tools and “provide communities with flood maps and data that are more reliable, easier to use and more readily available than ever before,” according to FEMA’s Web site.
The outcry from affected parties and the catastrophic flooding from Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma during the 2005 hurricane season led FEMA to retool its plan earlier this year and issue a Mid-Course Adjustment.
While all maps eventually will be updated, FEMA is initially concentrating on creating detailed maps in those areas where both flood risk and population numbers are high. The agency also extended its deadline to 2010.
Already, however, builders, property owners and others are concerned about the methodology that FEMA is using for the project and, subsequently, the accuracy of the maps. In Washington’s Skagit River area, a coalition of building industry representatives, other businesses and municipalities has sent FEMA a letter outlining its concerns.
“We are aware that modernization of the nation’s flood maps was designed to provide for engineering updates, including the validation of existing flood data. Unfortunately, it has become clear to us that FEMA’s effort is woefully underfunded, resulting in shortcuts that have compromised the quality of the maps,” the letter said. “FEMA has sacrificed its primary goal of improving the quality of its maps, settling instead for little more than the digitization of its existing, inaccurate maps. This is indeed unfortunate.”
The Retooling Process Generates Community Concerns
FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) plays a critical role in directing land use in flood-prone areas and managing the risk of flooding for residential properties. The FEMA maps, used to outline the geographical scope of the floodplain, are the basis for state and community management regulations, flood insurance premiums and determinations on whether property owners are required to obtain flood insurance.
The maps also indicate which properties must comply with flood-related building requirements because all homes built within the so-called Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA), or 100-year flood zone, must meet strict minimum elevations and building or renovation constraints.
But as FEMA consultants move through communities to update the maps, some residents are surprised by the results.
The project, known as the Multi-Year Flood Hazard Identification Plan, has drastically increased the amount of land designated as within the 100-year flood zone ― land identified as having a 1% chance of significant flooding in any given year, or a 26% chance of flooding during the life of a 30-year mortgage.
According to preliminary maps for Lee County, Fla., for example, the number of lots that fall within the upgraded 100-year flood zone would increase by about 7,600.
The increase is attributed to fact that the measuring equipment used today is more accurate than the equipment used during previous mapping projects. Mappers also have more meteorological history to draw upon. Meanwhile, the country’s population continues to grow, bringing more development and more impervious surfaces and increasing the likelihood of flooding.
“Because flood hazards are dynamic and usually increase over time as development occurs, old maps tend to understate actual, existing flood hazards,” said Susan Asmus, staff vice president for Environmental and Regulatory Affairs at NAHB.
“Consequently, we expect to continue to see increased flood elevations and expanded SFHAs in the updated maps. This not only extends the obligation for those with financing provided by a federally insured or licensed lending institution to obtain flood insurance, it also includes mandatory construction requirements,” Asmus said.
“Overall development in floodplains is also under increasing scrutiny, as are increased mitigation requirements, because communities are being pressured to seek innovative ways to reduce and ameliorate public risks. As a result, builders and developers need to pay close attention to any changes to the extent of the floodplain, the base flood elevation and any revisions to community floodplain management plans. The impact can be very significant,” Asmus continued.
Communities Urged to Participate in Mapping Process
FEMA believes that full community support is integral to the map modernization process and is encouraging community participation. Each preliminary map will be made available for public comments to give citizens an opportunity to submit technical and scientific data to refute a specific mapped area, or to appeal the accuracy of the mapping process in general.
Members of the home building industry can help to shape the final maps and should participate in the process.
Once the appeals and protests are reviewed and map changes incorporated, FEMA will issue a Letter of Final Determination. Six months later, after the community adopts an ordinance approving the new Digital Flood Insurance Rate Map, the maps become effective, along with any new flood insurance requirements.
As soon as the preliminary maps are released, however, they will be used in helping to determine requirements for construction and development projects.
Local Jurisdictions Have Open, Public Processes
NAHB is urging members of the home building and development community to stay in contact with local jurisdictions, Asmus said. “They should be following a fairly open and public process, in concert with FEMA, to update the maps.”
FEMA has also published preliminary schedules to give a sense of when specific counties will come up for review (see www.FEMA.gov).
FEMA Also Has Developed Stringent Criteria for Dams and Levees
In addition to updating the flood insurance rate maps, Skagit County, the state of Washington, and the federal government are in the unique situation to consider increasing the flood storage capacity of the Baker River Hydroelectric Project, also know as the Baker Dam. Increasing the capacity of the dam could significantly decrease the base flood elevation (BFE) for the surrounding areas minimizing the extent of any changes to the rate map.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has suggested that the new BFE may be seven to eight feet higher than current elevations in many locations, said John Piazza, of Piazza Construction, one of the coalition leaders. “Think of the wheelchair ramps we’d have to build if we had to raise all the buildings by eight feet. Think of all the remodeling projects. Nothing would look the same,” he said.
But if the Corps had the authority to supersede the local electric utility, which owns Baker Dam, and lower the water level when a storm was in the forecast, it might be able to prevent flooding from occurring in the first place, he said. “Right now, the excess water just goes over the top of the dam, and that’s the problem,” he said.
In those areas of the country that rely on dams, levees and other significant structural mechanisms to control floodwaters, there is another initiative that has the potential to have a great impact: levee certification.
Because of recent flooding in places that were thought to be protected by structural controls, FEMA is revisiting how levees are certified and has developed stringent criteria that must be met before any system can be considered to provide adequate protection from the 100-year flood, Asmus said.
“FEMA discovered that a number of certified levees actually failed to meet that standard. Now, some of areas that are behind levees that were excluded from the SFHA may be included when new FIRMs are issued, which means flood insurance must be purchased and flood-proof construction measures followed,” she said.
NAHB Is Developing a Flood Map Toolkit for HBAs, Members
FEMA’s map modernization is complex and far reaching and will bring changes that, at this point, are difficult to assess.
In response, NAHB is developing an HBA toolkit with resources that will enable local associations to help their members understand the impact of the new maps and fight unreasonable flood plain boundary decisions when necessary.
The HBA flood map toolkit should be available in time for the International Builders' Show in February.