Journalism in the Public Interest

As Need for New Flood Maps Rises, Congress and Obama Cut Funding

Funding to update the nation’s decades-old flood maps has been cut in half in recent years, even as extreme weather has grown more frequent.

FEMA Public Assistance Coordinator Jim Russell (left) and Day County S.D. Highway Supervisor Chuck Fromelt review South Dakota flood damage in 2011. (FEMA Photo Library)

As the United States grows warmer and extreme weather more common, the federal government’s flood insurance maps are becoming increasingly important.

The maps, drawn by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, dictate the monthly premiums millions of American households pay for flood insurance. They are also designed to give homeowners and buyers the latest understanding of how likely their communities are to flood.

The government’s response to the rising need for accurate maps? It’s slashed funding for them. 

Congress has cut funding for updating flood maps by more than half since 2010, from $221 million down to $100 million this year. And the president’s latest budget request would slash funding for mapping even further to $84 million — a drop of 62 percent over the last four years.

Flood Hazard Mapping and Risk Analysis Program Budget

(in millions, 2014 number from proposed budget)
Source: Federal Budget, Department of Homeland Security

In a little-noticed written response to questions from a congressional hearing, FEMA estimated the cuts would delay its map program by three to five years. The program “will continue to make progress, but more homeowners will rely on flood hazard maps that are not current,” FEMA wrote.

The cuts have slowed efforts to update flood maps across the country.

In New England, for instance, FEMA is updating coastal maps but has put off updating many flood maps along the region’s rivers, said Kerry Bogdan, a senior engineer with FEMA’s floodplain mapping program in Boston.

“Unfortunately, without the money to do it, we’re limited and our hands are kind of tied,” she said.  

Many of the flood maps in Vermont — including areas near Lake Champlain that have recently flooded — are decades out of date. “There are definitely communities that really need that data,” said Ned Swanberg, the flood hazard mapping coordinator with Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

Asked about the cuts, a spokesman for the White House’s Office of Management of Budget directed to us FEMA, which did not respond to our requests for comment.

New maps can guide development toward areas that are less likely to flood. They also tend to be far more accurate. Today’s mapmakers can take advantage of technologies including lidar, or laser radar, and ADCIRC, a computer program that’s used to model hurricane storm surge. They can also incorporate more years of flooding data into their models.

“It is disconcerting to have counties and areas where people still have maps from the 1970s,” said Suzanne Jiwani, a floodplain mapping engineer with Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources.

The slashed funding for the mapping program hasn’t gone unnoticed in Congress.

Rep. David E. Price, a North Carolina Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that is responsible for FEMA’s budget, told W. Craig Fugate, the FEMA administrator, at a hearing in March 2012 that FEMA’s budget “continues to lowball funding” for updating the country’s flood maps.

“Both Republican and Democratic Administrations have generally made inadequate requests for Flood Hazard Mapping and Risk Analysis funding, and under the Republican majority funding provided has been inadequate,” Price said in a statement to ProPublica.

Andrew High, a spokesman for Price, said the congressman had pushed for modest boost in funding, about $10 million this year.

It was a question from Price that prompted FEMA to detail the delays. FEMA said its ultimate goal was to get 80 percent of the country’s flood hazard data up-to-date. Cutting funding for the program “is a difficult decision,” FEMA wrote, “but it’s reasonable given multitude of competing national priorities and limited resources.”

FEMA also funds its maps through the National Flood Insurance Program. It takes a small slice of homeowners’ flood insurance premiums, about $150 million in the 2013 fiscal year. But the flood insurance programis also in trouble, and income from the premiums is already stretched thin. The program has more than $20 billion in debt after paying out massive claims after Katrina and Sandy, and it took in only $3.6 billion in premiums last year.

As part of an overhaul to the insurance program last year, Congress authorized the government to spend $400 million a year for the next five years to update flood maps. But for the 2013 fiscal year, Congress has appropriated just a quarter of that. Sequestration has cut another $5 million, according to the Office of Management and Budget, leaving $95 million for flood mapping this year.

That’s not nearly enough, said Larry Larson, director emeritus of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, a trade organization based in Madison, Wis.

“To get the mapping done, you need probably $400 million a year for 10 years,” Larson said.

The experiences of some homeowners after Sandy illustrate the dangers of outdated flood maps.

FEMA was in the process of updating the maps in New York City and New Jersey when Sandy hit. After the storm, the agency rushed to complete “advisory” flood maps designed to give homeowners a rough idea of how much they might need to raise their damaged homes by to avoid catastrophically high flood insurance premiums — more than $30,000 a year for some homeowners in the worst flood zones.

But homeowners like George Kasimos, whose Toms River, N.J., house was damaged in the storm, say they don’t want to shell out tens of thousands of dollars to raise their homes until FEMA has finalized the new maps. FEMA plans to release preliminary maps for New Jersey this summer, but the final ones aren’t expected until late next year. (Scott Duell, the risk analysis chief for FEMA in New York, said that the cuts had not slowed down work on the new maps in New York and New Jersey.)

Kasimos said any cuts to the flood mapping program were shortsighted.

“There’s going to be another hurricane somewhere, there’s going to be another disaster,” he said. “If you’re cutting the flood mapping program, somebody’s going to get screwed.”

More bleeding heart liberal left-wing propaganda!!! Oh wait… this isn’t about politics but just plain ordinary good governance. Which explains why there are no Tea Party operatives frothing on about ProPublica’s bias in the comment sectoin.

Just thought you should know there are some sane readers out here in the ether.

Stephanie Palmer

May 24, 2013, 2:53 p.m.

It’s naive to think that the congress has any concern for their individual constituents; they’re much too busy trying to figure out new subsidies for companies and individuals who keep the cash outside of this country. That is what consumes their time…......well that and repealing Obamacare….....and trying to figure out a way to create an issue leading to the impeachment of President Obama.

Elizabeth Wallace

May 24, 2013, 3:02 p.m.

Perhaps fundraise from companies who make a profit from providing supplies for relief and reconstruction.

$84 million dollars is a lot of money.  The job should be bid out with performance guarantees.  I suspect that many companies would be interested in getting the job done at less than the $84 million.

Or just put the responsibility on the buyer to decide for themselves whether to purchase insurance.  Easy enough.  Sufficient info is easily and freely enough available for good decision making.

This is what happens when government is involved in the insurance business.  People do not have a right to build in flood prone areas and should understand the risk.  Private insurance will charge what the correct premium should be and if the cost is prohibitive or unavailable, maybe one shouldn’t build there.  You build along a river or on a beach, I shouldn’t have to subsidize the repair of your damages through taxes when the inevitable flood comes.

Flood maps are important. However if maps can not be updated or drawn for $84 million that is a testament of our broken the federal government has become. I suspect a flood map is important to insurance companies. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that policy’s written for an area disclaimed coverage due to flooding risks.

I am also thinking that each state should take responsibility for drawing their own maps. The states could afford if the federal nanny state stopped burying states in mandates.

clarence swinney

May 27, 2013, 4 p.m.

The majority of food we eat comes form multinational agriculture conglomerates.
Con-Agri, Adm, Cargill etc. Those super wealthy firms get subsidies from the government.
The small farmer provides for family and few neighbors.
Yet-The USDA is expanding a program to fight rural poverty thru federal funding.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited South Carolina to announce his so-called Strike Force Initiative.
The goal of Strike Force is to help farmers, food producers and other businesses get access
to money for [projects such as new wells, greenhouses, community gardens, kitchen space and summer meals for low-income school children.
My point is why should we subsidize very wealthy conglomerates?
Try going back to community banking! 3000 counties—7000 banks—10 control 80% of deposits.
Many of those on staff of FDA and AG held high level positions on Multinationals

There are a couple of problems with this article - the biggest of which is the assertion that we are seeing more storms, and more storms which are “more violent.” That’s not true. Flooding is often related to a single storm - think Sandy - but we’re not having more of those storms than we used to. Flooding may also be related to “excessive” rains - such as is happening in Iowa as I am writing this - but we’re not seeing more of those events (which typically involve several “fronts” of rain over several days) either. You wouldn’t know that from watching NBC or CBS or the other similar channels because their bias - based on the very clear connection between “huge storm coming!” and bigger ratings - is toward “it’s all getting worse.” Actually, it’s not.

The second problem is that the article didn’t make clear that coastal flood maps are little more than guesses. Base your map on the projected rise in oceans levels that the global warming types assure us is on the way makes the warming industry happy, but the projected rises are inferred from models which - to date - have performed very poorly (such as there being NO increase in earth temperatures for the last 16 years or so).  There are areas in New England which have experienced two “100 year storms” in the last five years - oops! - but that speaks to how imprecise is the process of trying to predict where flood water will show up rather than one or another political agenda.

I believe it makes sense to hold harmless people who build things (houses, offices, etc.) based on current maps. That puts the risk to the insurers where it belongs - in the market - and the insurers will find a way to secure the mapping data they need. Someone will have to pay for those maps - figuring out a way to spread the cost across all policy holders is not impossible. The insurers are much more cautious than they used to be - they’ve learned not to rely on current maps quite so confidently - and all of us have learned that it doesn’t make sense to encourage rebuilding in areas where Mother Nature every so often sweeps the fields clean. Insurance is now much higher in Florida, whole towns have been relocated along the Mississippi, subdivisions in the Galveston area are built on stilts, and New York and New Jersey (among others) are discovering that building next to the ocean isn’t all that smart. It’s a complex problem - but there’s no reason to make it even more so by claiming that we’re having more storms, more terrible storms, and that we known everything we need in order to make such maps. The recent storm totals - in spite of what the warming models claimed - are lower. Building maps based on those same models - which is how they have to be built to catch the newest “threats” - is unlikely to be any more accurate.

The maps are made…FEMA and the companies FEMA hires to draw the maps are under pressure to redraw and redraw over and over again….no more money is needed

Sound like this would be a great educational project for first year engineering/geology etc. students on local levels all around the country. The govt could fund it as an education project which would cost much less as they could pay a small stipend with the big cost for equipment and travel.

richard schumacher

June 6, 2013, 8:51 a.m.

It’s just one more reason among myriads why we must vote out the Republicans in 2014.  Their mindless obstructionism is ruining us.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
After the Flood

After the Flood: The Challenge of Rebuilding as the Climate Changes

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, ProPublica is investigating the response to disasters as the climate changes.

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