Millions of Homeowners Who Need Flood Insurance Don’t Know It — Thanks to FEMA
It is FEMA’s job to warn homeowners about major flood risks, but its approach is notoriously limited. In Cook County alone, researchers found about six times as many properties in danger as FEMA estimated. Look up your address with a new tool. FEMA is responsible for flagging high-risk zones where property owners with federally backed mortgages must purchase flood insurance. But FEMA’s maps are notoriously incomplete. They capture some flooding from rivers and other coastlines, yet they rarely account for the risks from intense rainfall — a growing problem made worse by urban development and climate change.
Homeowners outside of FEMA’s high-risk zones often believe they are safe, underestimating their vulnerability. Then, once a flood hits, they must pay out-of-pocket for water damage since they weren’t made to buy flood insurance. Taxpayers are on the hook for flood damage, too. After major disasters, the government provides limited aid for the uninsured, and long-term recovery funds come from agencies like the Department of Housing and Urban Development. A comprehensive new assessment of flood risk, released this week by the nonprofit First Street Foundation, exposes blind spots in FEMA’s maps to show just how vulnerable the nation’s properties are. Built by researchers from private companies and universities, the model calculates the cumulative risk for every property in the contiguous United States from rainfall, storm surge, tidal and river flooding. FEMA says 8.7 million properties are in areas susceptible to a “hundred-year flood” — a flooding event with a 1% chance of occurring in a given year. The new data says there are 14.6 million properties at risk.
Flooding costs will only escalate as climate change drives tidal flooding, sea-level rise and intensifying storms. While FEMA calculates risk using historical data, the new models incorporate climate projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Assuming moderate growth in global warming emissions, it predicts rapidly rising flood risk in some regions over the life of a 30-year mortgage. In Florida, for example, one in five properties is now in a high-risk zone, but that will grow to one in every four properties by 2050. In Louisiana, the number of properties at risk will grow 70% by 2050. FEMA’s spokesperson said its maps present “snapshots in time” and “do not address future changing conditions.”
A recent report from the Association of State Floodplain Managers says FEMA has only mapped flood hazards for one-third of the miles of the nation’s rivers and streams. It estimates that Congress would need to appropriate at least an additional $3.2 billion to complete the process — about a third of what FEMA has spent on mapping since the National Flood Insurance Program was created in 1969. Maintaining the maps would require an extra $107 million to $480 million annually. That still would not fully account for flood risks from rainfall, including in urban areas far from rivers and streams. Urban flooding is hard to model. The discrepancy of the FEMA model is particularly stark in areas with drainage systems that cannot handle the amount of water pooling onto impermeable, paved surfaces. Runoff, inadequate sewer infrastructure and local topography can all affect whether one house floods more than its neighbors. None of that is shown on the FEMA floodplain maps. In short FEMA is missing what happens if a lot of rain falls all at once.
Heavy rains are routine in the Midwest, where warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico typically collides with cold fronts from Canada, creating powerful storms and tornadoes. Many cities, including Chicago, are low-lying and relatively flat. Over the last two centuries, the native wetlands and prairie grasses that acted as natural retention basins for rainfall were supplanted by concrete and asphalt. These impermeable surfaces divert rainfall into sewer systems that are ill-equipped to handle intensifying storms.
The rainfall is not uniform - it is increasingly coming down in bunches. In the Great Lakes region, the most powerful storms have increased 35% between 1951 and 2017. Last year, state scientists updated the standard for new construction requiring state permits, including the design of storm sewers, retention ponds and road drainage, to accommodate increasing precipitation trends. Because state and local officials use FEMA maps to help guide and justify their planning decisions, they tend to focus almost exclusively on the areas the agency has deemed high risk. For example, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago has spent around $22.2 million helping municipalities acquire 90 flood-prone properties, raze the structures on those properties and keep those areas as open space. The agency has designated additional high-risk zones beyond the FEMA maps, but so far, the properties purchased throughout Cook County have been in FEMA’s high-risk zones.
The state buyout program, which gained traction after the devastating 1993 floods along the Mississippi River, has resulted in the purchase of more than 6,000 flood-prone structures and some adjacent vacant lots. While being located in the FEMA floodplain wasn’t a prerequisite, Paul Osman, the statewide floodplain chief, estimates roughly 95% of those buyouts were located within these zones. Osman said the lack of sufficient urban flooding data means it is easier to justify buyouts in the FEMA-designated areas. The unmapped ones are left to flood, with little warning or remedy for homeowners.
In Illinois alone, there has been more than $2.3 billion in documented property damage from flooding in urban areas between 2007 and 2014, according to a study led by the Department of Natural Resources. Most of the insurance and disaster assistance claims were for properties outside of the FEMA floodplain — where residents were not required to buy flood insurance and may not have been alerted to the risk when they bought their homes. The FEMA spokesperson said homeowners can voluntarily purchase flood insurance, and that nearly a quarter of all National Flood Insurance Program claims are from properties outside the high-risk areas. “Where it can rain, it can flood.”