By Michael KellerMichael Keller, Mira RojanasakulMira Rojanasakul, David IngoldDavid Ingold, Christopher FlavelleChristopher Flavelle and Brittany HarrisBrittany Harris

When Hurricane Harvey ripped through Hitchcock, Texas, in August, it wasn’t just pummeled by nature. The town of 7,300, just across the bay from Galveston, was also the victim of a bad map: The local flood maps managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency hadn’t been updated since 1983. That made it harder for residents to know if their homes were at risk of flooding—which might explain why fewer than one in four homes had flood insurance in a town that saw severe flooding during the storm.

Hitchcock was no anomaly. FEMA is supposed to review their maps every five years to make sure they still properly indicate flood risk. But that policy hasn’t stopped flood maps created as far back as the 1970s from influencing where people build or if they have flood insurance, and at what rates. When those maps are wrong it leaves taxpayers on the hook if residents, banks or the National Flood Insurance Program need to be bailed out. And it can lead to billions of dollars in losses for uninsured homeowners who didn’t think their house could flood.

Even FEMA’s newer maps are likely to fall short as an accurate indicator of flood risk because they don’t account for rapid rain accumulation, how buildings are constructed, climate change or expected population growth, among other things.

“Until they do that, these maps will always be obsolete the day they come out,” said Larry Larson, senior policy adviser and director emeritus for the Association of State Floodplain Managers, a professional organization focused on reducing losses from flood damage.

FEMA manages flood maps for about 22,000 communities across the U.S. Almost two-thirds of those maps have an “effective date”—the date it was last officially updated—more than five years old; some maps have been in place for more than 40 years.

Age of effective date for FEMA flood maps

<1

1

3

5

7

9

11

13

15

20

30

40+

years

<1

1

3

5

7

9

11

13

15

20

30

40+

years

<1

1

3

5

7

9

11

13

15

20

30

40+

years

<1

1

3

5

7

9

11

13

15

20

30

40+

years

<1

1

3

5

7

9

11

13

15

20

30

40+

years

Source: FEMA

Note: Areas without data are communities that do not participate in the National Flood Insurance Program. In some instances, areas that do participate are not shown due to lack of reliable data. Areas are Census boundaries and Special Land Use Authority Areas from 2010 provided by FEMA.

FEMA says these maps only paint part of the risk picture.

“The recent storms were strong evidence of the fact that anywhere it can rain, it can flood,” a FEMA spokesperson said. “FEMA encourages everyone to consider buying flood insurance and making mitigation-related changes to reduce their risk and protect their properties.”

But FEMA knows there’s a problem. A recent report from the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General’s Office found that FEMA’s flood map program is plagued by mismanagement and poor mapping standards. Only 42 percent of FEMA’s maps “adequately identified the level of flood risk”, according to fiscal year 2017 data included in the report. The program’s goal is to have 80 percent of its maps up-to-date. FEMA attributed the delay to decreases in program funding.

In multiple instances, maps failed to pass FEMA’s verification checks, but were issued to the public anyway, with the report noting that FEMA was not providing residents with a reliable rendering of their true flood vulnerability.

FEMA agreed with the recommendations included in the report, which notes that the agency has already begun initiating changes to better meet program goals.

“FEMA remains strongly committed to providing credible risk information to communities so that they can make informed flood risk management decisions,” the agency said in responses included in the report.

Outdated Maps Underpin Subsidized Insurance Program

A map’s effective date comes with caveats. Maps can go into effect years after some of the terrain was actually studied, giving the impression an area is more up to date than it really is. Not every change is significant enough to warrant a new effective date. However, some small changes within a larger region will sometimes trigger a new effective date for the entire community, even if large swaths of the area weren’t re-examined—giving residents incomplete information about their flood risk.

FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program, which insures $1.25 trillion in assets, relies on these maps to assess risk, set premiums and determine who is required to purchase flood insurance. Bad information about an area’s flood risk can leave the program and homeowners vulnerable to high costs from flood damage.

Those costs can be massive. In the last three years, eight different floods have exceeded $1 billion in damages, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information. Last year alone, the costs from four floods totaled $16 billion, outpacing all other climate-related disasters—including droughts, hurricanes and wildfires.

And 2017 will almost certainly be costlier. Roy E. Wright, head of FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program, says he expects the program to pay an estimated $11 billion to insured homeowners in South Texas in Hurricane Harvey’s wake. Add to that a predicted $9 billion in payouts for Hurricane Irma, 2017 could be the most expensive year in the flood insurance program’s history. And that doesn’t include costs to uninsured buildings, which make up the vast majority of the losses.

National Flood Insurance Program balance sheet

Total annual earned premium

Total annual losses paid out

$

Sandy

Ike

Katrina, Rita and Wilma

Total annual earned premium

Total annual losses paid out

$

Ike

Sandy

Katrina, Rita and Wilma

Total annual earned premium

Total annual losses paid out

$

Ike

Katrina, Rita

and Wilma

Sandy

Sources: FEMA; U.S. Department of Homeland Security

FEMA has been tasked with compiling flood maps since 1973. By law, those maps show areas that would be affected by two flooding scenarios: what FEMA describes as a 100-year and 500-year flood, or areas that have at least a 1 percent or 0.2 percent chance, respectively, of flooding each year. FEMA calls the 100-year areas “high-hazard” flood plains.

Inaccuracies can have significant consequences for the people who live in affected areas. Flood maps help local governments determine where to allow development, and under what conditions. For example, a city or county could decide that no homes can be built in a “high-hazard” flood plain, or that any homes built there have to include additional safety measures, such as putting the first floor a certain number of feet above the ground.

For homeowners, the boundaries dictate insurance requirements and influence property values. Homeowners who live within the “high-hazard” flood plain and have a federally backed mortgage are required to purchase flood insurance. For everyone else, the boundaries are supposed to be an indicator of the risk they face, as well as an inducement to get flood insurance even if it’s not legally required. Out-of-date maps get in the way of price signals—higher insurance premiums, lower home prices—that would otherwise communicate the risk of flooding.

The Difference Between Old and New Maps

In places such as along the Alabama-Mississippi border, the differences between maps can be striking.

Jackson County, Mississippi—along the Gulf Coast—was remapped after Hurricane Katrina according to updated guidelines. Across the border in Alabama’s Mobile County, however, the terrain hasn’t been studied since 2002, according to Matthew Barclift, the Mobile County floodplain administrator. The Alabama map shows likely flood heights differ in some places by as many as 14 feet from areas surveyed right across the border in Mississippi.

“Two lots right next to each other—one happens to be Mobile, Alabama and the other is Jackson County, Mississippi,” said Landon Smith, the floodplain administrator for the City of Orange Beach, along the Alabama coast. “You’re right across the state line where you don’t have any relevant change on the ground, but you were seeing drastically different base flood elevations.”

Same coastline, different flood levels across a state border

Base flood elevations—the likely maximum flood height during a “high-hazard” flood—in Alabama and Mississippi

0

2

4

6

8

10

12

14

16

18

20

22

feet

0

2

4

6

8

10

12

14

16

18

20

22

feet

0

2

4

6

8

10

12

14

16

18

20

22

feet

MISSISSIPPI

ALABAMA

Mobile County

Mapped before

Hurricane Katrina

Jackson County

Mapped after

Hurricane Katrina

14 feet

0 feet

MS

AL

GA

LA

FL

Area of detail

Gulf of Mexico

MISSISSIPPI

ALABAMA

Mobile County

Mapped before

Hurricane Katrina

Jackson County

Mapped after

Hurricane Katrina

14 feet

0 feet

GA

MS

AL

LA

FL

Area of detail

Gulf of Mexico

MISSISSIPPI

ALABAMA

Jackson County

Mapped after

Hurricane Katrina

Mobile County

Mapped before

Hurricane Katrina

14 feet

0 feet

GA

MS

AL

Gulf of Mexico

LA

FL

Area of detail

MISSISSIPPI

ALABAMA

14 feet

Mobile County

Mapped before

Hurricane Katrina

Jackson County

Mapped after

Hurricane Katrina

0 feet

MS

AL

GA

LA

FL

Area of detail

Gulf of Mexico

MISSISSIPPI

ALABAMA

Mobile County

Mapped before Hurricane Katrina

Jackson County

Mapped after Hurricane Katrina

14 feet

0 feet

MS

AL

GA

LA

FL

Gulf of Mexico

Area of detail

Sources: FEMA, U.S. Census Bureau

Mobile County is set to receive new preliminary maps next month.

Opposition Leads to Delays

Attempts by FEMA to update maps can face local opposition. Homeowners are loathe to hear that a house they didn’t think was in a flood plain actually is. The designation can lower property values and make it harder to sell your home. Insurance requirements can be an unwelcome additional expense. While FEMA provides options for homeowners to contest the status of their property, surveying costs and review fees can easily reach thousands of dollars.

That’s part of the reason the maps in Hitchcock, Texas are so old—preliminary maps from 2012 that would have expanded the floodplain haven’t gone into effect, in part, due to local opposition.

“I understand we’re all going to move to higher standards and make people safer, but trying to keep flood insurance affordable is another issue,” said Darrell Hunter, city inspector and floodplain manager for the City of Hitchcock.

In Illinois, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, similar circumstances have left 39 year-old maps in place.

Updates delayed in Illinois

Effective dates of community maps in the St. Louis area

<1

1

3

5

7

9

11

13

15

20

30

40+

years

<1

1

3

5

7

9

11

13

15

20

30

40+

years

<1

1

3

5

7

9

11

13

15

20

30

40+

years

<1

1

3

5

7

9

11

13

15

20

30

40+

years

<1

1

3

5

7

9

11

13

15

20

30

40+

years

MISSOURI

ILLINOIS

Staunton

July 1981

Grafton

April 2009

Troy

Sept. 2010

Alton

May 1984

Wright City

Nov. 2009

Wentzville

Jan. 2016

Florissant

Feb. 2015

Highland City

Nov. 1986

St. Charles

Jan. 2016

Granite City

June 1978

St. Louis

May 2011

Chesterfield

Feb. 2015

East St. Louis

Nov. 2003

O’Fallon

Nov. 2003

Wildwood

Feb. 2015

Belleville

Nov. 2003

Washington

Oct. 2011

Arnold

April 2006

Union

Oct. 2011

Waterloo

Sept. 1984

MISSOURI

ILLINOIS

Staunton

July 1981

Grafton

April 2009

Troy

Sept. 2010

Alton

May 1984

Wentzville

Jan. 2016

Florissant

Feb. 2015

St. Charles

Jan. 2016

Granite City

June 1978

St. Louis

May 2011

Chesterfield

Feb. 2015

O’Fallon

Nov. 2003

Wildwood

Feb. 2015

Belleville

Nov. 2003

Washington

Oct. 2011

Arnold

April 2006

Union

Oct. 2011

MO

IL

Staunton

July 1981

Grafton

April 2009

Troy

Sept. 2010

Alton

May 1984

Wentzville

Jan. 2016

St. Charles

Jan. 2016

Granite City

June 1978

St. Louis

May 2011

Wildwood

Feb. 2015

Belleville

Nov. 2003

Arnold

April 2006

Union

Oct. 2011

MISSOURI

ILLINOIS

Staunton

July 1981

Grafton

April 2009

Troy

Sept. 2010

Alton

May 1984

Wright City

Nov. 2009

Wentzville

Jan. 2016

Florissant

Feb. 2015

St. Charles

Jan. 2016

Highland City

Nov. 1986

Granite City

June 1978

Chesterfield

Feb. 2015

St. Louis

May 2011

East St. Louis

Nov. 2003

O’Fallon

Nov. 2003

Wildwood

Feb. 2015

Belleville

Nov. 2003

Washington

Oct. 2011

Arnold

April 2006

Union

Oct. 2011

MISSOURI

ILLINOIS

Staunton

July 1981

Grafton

April 2009

Troy

Sept. 2010

Alton

May 1984

Wright City

Nov. 2009

Wentzville

Jan. 2016

Florissant

Feb. 2015

St. Charles

Jan. 2016

Highland City

Nov. 1986

Granite City

June 1978

Chesterfield

Feb. 2015

St. Louis

May 2011

East St. Louis

Nov. 2003

O’Fallon

Nov. 2003

Wildwood

Feb. 2015

Belleville

Nov. 2003

Washington

Oct. 2011

Arnold

April 2006

Union

Oct. 2011

Sources: FEMA, U.S. Census Bureau

FEMA proposed new maps for parts of St. Clair County, Illinois, that would have added thousands of homes to the “high-hazard” flood plain over concerns that aging levees along the river could fail. Local and state officials, including St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern, railed against the new maps.

“A lot of people who couldn’t afford the flood insurance would be forced out of their home. To add these costs on, we felt, was unconscionable,” Kern said. “Many suspected that FEMA was trying to collect insurance money to pay for disasters in other parts of the country.”

Facing other pressure from state and federal lawmakers, FEMA backed down, agreeing to delay the maps until new procedures for evaluating the levees were developed and repairs could be made. New maps are expected to take effect in 2019.

“They chose to hold off updating the maps until the levees were fixed, so that in the interim, you wouldn’t have the financial burden on people who couldn’t afford it,” said Sally McConkey, former chair of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, who is currently with the Illinois State Water Survey. “But what if, in the meantime, those levees failed and those areas flooded, and there wasn’t mandatory flood insurance because the area wasn’t in a floodplain?”

FEMA says that it works with local groups to address concerns as much as possible, balancing remediation efforts with the need for updated flood maps.

“We’re encouraging folks to purchase insurance particularly in areas behind levees—regardless of how it’s depicted on a flood insurance rate map—because there is a risk associated with living behind that levee,” said Suzanne Vermeer, a certified floodplain manager at FEMA. “That is sometimes a very difficult conversation to have with individuals.”

In this case, part of FEMA’s work was an outreach campaign to help local communities understand that risk, Vermeer said.

When New Maps Fail, Too

Even when flood maps are current, they often fail when put to the test by a real flood.

Consider the flooding that ravaged Houston and the surrounding area in Harris County during Hurricane Harvey. The maps in Houston were mostly updated in 2017. But FEMA’s maps don’t account for a city’s inability to drain heavy rainfall exacerbated by new development and inadequate infrastructure. These critical factors contributed to the extensive flooding in and around Houston, and help explain why so many homes were inundated, even though they weren’t in a FEMA-designated flood plain.

Harvey flooding outside FEMA’s “high-hazard” flood zones

Flooding inside the zone

Flooding outside the zone

Houston city limits

Flooding inside the zone

Flooding outside the zone

Houston city limits

Flooding inside the zone

Flooding outside the zone

Houston city limits

Texas

Harris County

Texas

Harris County

TX

Harris County

Sources: FEMA, U.S. Census Bureau, Dartmouth Flood Observatory (Maximum Observed Flooding, Hurricane Harvey)

Note: Due to visual obstruction caused by buildings and other factors, observed flooding levels within city limits is limited.

To Dag Lohmann, co-founder and chief executive officer of the catastrophe-modeling company KatRisk LLC, the FEMA zones are too blunt an instrument for navigating the uncertainty around flood risk.

“You’re either in or you’re out,” he said of FEMA’s “high-hazard” flood boundaries.

Over the course of a typical 30-year mortgage, the chance of flooding in a 100-year flood zone is 26 percent, but private insurers want more nuance to better assess risk. According to Lohmann, some private companies run models for 10-, 20- and 50-year floods to better understand what homeowners should be charged for insurance.

Chance of flooding increases over longer periods

Calling a “high-hazard” area a “100-year” flood zone can give the impression flooding occurs once in a century. The actual risk is 1 percent every year.

Sources: FEMA, USGS

And private insurers take into account more information about how a building is constructed. In most cases, these factors help them assess risk more accurately and set rates accordingly.

FEMA is trying to implement standards more inline with those of private insurers. Reforms signed into law in 2012 included creation of an advisory council meant to recommend ways the agency can improve its maps. The council has issued annual reports with dozens of recommendations, including diagrams and formulas for calculating structure-specific damages for a variety of floods, not just the 500-year and “high-hazard” 100-year risk events.

“Based on recommendations from the Technical Mapping Advisory Council, FEMA is exploring products more attune to individual structure risks across multiple return periods,” a FEMA spokesperson said.

FEMA says funding from Congress has been insufficient to meet all of the program’s goals. As a result, the agency has been slow to respond to the recommendations. Anticipating future conditions such as weather and land development, for example, are listed as “10+ years” projects in FEMA’s most recent annual report to Congress.

Congress will have an opportunity to address the agency’s problems in the coming months—the National Flood Insurance Program is set to expire Dec. 8.

On Wednesday, the White House asked Congress to forgive $16 billion of the flood program’s existing debt and recommended a series of changes to the program—such as eliminating federal flood insurance for newly-constructed homes that are built in “high-hazard” flood zones.

But none of the proposals addresses the accuracy of the underlying flood maps.

“If your maps truly reflect the risk, you rate the policies right and you’re using the best available data, then I think you can have a healthy program. But unfortunately we haven't had that in the past,” said Landon Smith, the floodplain administrator in Orange Beach, Alabama. “We've had bad data, bad maps and we've had big claims.”