In aftermath of hurricanes, FEMA’s slow flood mapping leaves homeowners vulnerable

The government’s disaster preparedness agency has failed to map flood risks in U.S. communities in a timely manner, leaving many vulnerable homeowners with a false security that they don’t need flood insurance, the Homeland Security Department’s internal watchdog warns.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has delayed decisions on flood zone determinations — in some cases by two years or more — and currently has more than 240 mapping projects on hold, the department's inspector general warned in a report dated Sept. 27.

As a result, only 42 percent of FEMA’s flood risk database is currently up to date, meaning more than half of the country’s flood map miles need to be revised, the review found. The agency’s stated goal is to have 80 percent of its flood maps current.

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“Without accurate floodplain identification and mapping processes, management, and oversight, FEMA cannot provide members of the public with a reliable rendering of their true flood vulnerability or ensure that [National Flood Insurance Program] rates reflect the real risk of flooding,” the report said.

The findings suggest that many people across the country may not understand the risks that their homes face from flooding, a fact underlined by the series of hurricanes that have hit the United States this season.

Hurricane Harvey’s devastation in Texas in late August provides a cogent example.

The University of California, Davis Center for Watershed Sciences said its analysis of flood data after Harvey found that the majority of the flooded areas in Houston’s Harris County were outside FEMA’s declared risk areas.

“Over 50% of estimated inundation occurred outside of any mapped flood zone,” it reported last month.

Mapping data released by FEMA shows that at least a third of structures initially reported damaged by flooding as of Sept. 2 were outside declared flood zones. Some members of Texas's congressional delegation estimate as many as 85 percent of victims in the state were without flood insurance when the epic storm hit.

“The recent flooding in Texas after Hurricane Harvey serves as a devastating example of the importance of accurate and reliable flood maps,” Inspector General John Roth said. “We are optimistic that our recommended changes will improve FEMA’s management of the flood mapping program and introduce internal controls to ensure the quality of the maps produced by FEMA’s partners.”

FEMA flood maps are used by the government and insurance companies to evaluate flood risk and calculate insurance premiums or insurance eligibility.

The agency says it knows it must do better but that Harvey’s damage in Texas must be evaluated with the reality that the storm’s magnitude was historic.

“The recent storms, which in many cases exceeded FEMA's data-backed assessments of the areas that have a 1-in-100 risk of flooding in any given year, were strong evidence of the fact that anywhere it can rain, it can flood,” the agency said in a statement.

That’s little solace, however, to homeowners without the insurance now to cover their losses or the lawmakers that represent them in Congress.

“I think I saw 85 percent of the folks did not have flood insurance. A lot of them, as you said, were told they were not in a flood area,” Rep. Roger Williams (R-Texas) told The Hill. “A 100-year floodplain is what everybody deals with. This appears to be a 500-year, so these are going to be issues that are going to have to be sorted out.”

Asked what may need to be done, Williams answered: “Eventually we’re going to have to remap and redo these kinds of things so this doesn’t happen again.“

But before that new effort begins, FEMA has to still catch up and update a mapping system that it admits suffered from inadequacies.

The agency says it is strongly committed to giving the public good risk data and that it has “made significant progress developing and implementing several flood-related policy and program changes.”

It agreed with recommendations listed by the inspector general, which include adopting policies that would ensure mapping projects move forward on a timely basis.

Until those problems are fixed, flood-vulnerable homeowners may be left in the dark, a reality that has members of Congress scrambling for long-term solutions.

“There are a lot of legal issues that are going to come up,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas). “So we have been working with the state and the locals but it has been, as you know, it’s not something that is going to be done overnight. It’s going to take a while.”