Journalism in the Public Interest

Using Outdated Data, FEMA Is Wrongly Placing Homeowners in Flood Zones

Homeowners have to bear the cost of fixing the agency’s mistakes.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s new flood maps for Burnet County, Texas, mistakenly place some homeowners in the high-risk flood areas, said Herb Darling, the county’s director of environmental services. Here, the thin blue line shows the center line of a creek in the county. The thick blue line above it shows the center line according to the new FEMA maps, and the shaded area shows a high-risk flood area, which includes the house marked 501. (Burnet County Environmental Services Department)

When Donna Edgar found out that new flood maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency would place her house in a high-risk flood zone, she couldn’t believe it.

Her home, on the ranch she and her husband own in Texas hill country about 60 miles north of Austin, sits well back from the nearby Lampasas River.

“Her house is on a hill,” said Herb Darling, the director of environmental services for Burnet County, where Edgar lives. “There’s no way it’s going to flood.”

Yet the maps, released last year, placed the Edgars in what FEMA calls a “special flood hazard area.” Homeowners in such areas are often required, and always encouraged, to buy federal flood insurance, which the Edgars did.

FEMA eventually admitted the maps were wrong. But it took Edgar half a dozen engineers (many of whom volunteered their time), almost $1,000 of her own money and what she called an “ungodly number of hours” of research and phone calls over the course of a year to prove it.

Edgars is far from alone.

From Maine to Oregon, local floodplain managers say FEMA’s recent flood maps — which dictate the premiums that 5.5 million Americans pay for flood insurance — have often been built using outdated, inaccurate data. Homeowners, in turn, have to bear the cost of fixing FEMA’s mistakes.

“It’s been a mess,” Darling said. “It’s been a headache for a lot of people.”

Joseph Young, Maine’s floodplain mapping coordinator, said his office gets calls “almost on a daily basis” from homeowners who say they’ve been mapped in high-risk flood areas in error. More often than not, he said, their complaints have merit. “There’s a lot of people who have a new map that’s unreliable,” he said.

Maps built with out-of-date data can also result in homeowners at risk of flooding not knowing the threat they face.

FEMA is currently finalizing new maps for Fargo, N.D., yet the maps don’t include any recent flood data, said April Walker, the city engineer, including from when the Red River overran its banks in 1997, 2009 and 2011. Those floods were the worst in Fargo’s history.

Fargo has more recent data, Walker said, but FEMA hasn’t incorporated it.

It’s unclear exactly how many new maps FEMA has issued in recent years are at least partly based on older data. While FEMA’s website allows anybody to look-up flood maps for their areas, the agency’s maps don’t show the age of the underlying data.

FEMA’s director of risk analysis, Doug Bellomo, said it was “very rare” for the agency to digitize the old paper flood maps without updating some of the data. “We really don’t go down the road” of simply digitizing old maps, he said.

FEMA did not respond to questions about the maps for Fargo or other specific areas.

State and local floodplain officials pointed to examples where FEMA had issued new maps based at least in part on outdated data. The reason, they said, wasn’t complicated.

“Not enough funding, pure and simple,” Young said.

Using new technology, FEMA today is able to gather far more accurate elevation data than it could in the 1970s and 1980s, when most of the old flood maps were made. Lidar, in which airplanes map terrain by firing laser pulses at the ground, can provide data that’s 10 times more accurate than the old methods.

Lidar is also expensive. Yet as we’ve reported, Congress, with the support of the White House, has actually cut map funding by more than half since 2010, from $221 million down to $100 million this year.

With limited funding, FEMA has concentrated on updating maps for the populated areas along the coasts. In rural areas, “it’s sort of a necessary evil to reissue maps with older data on them,” said Sally McConkey, an engineer with the Illinois State Water Survey at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which has a contract with FEMA to produce flood maps in the state.

When old maps are digitized, mapmakers try to match up road intersections visible on them with the ones seen in modern satellite imagery (similar to what you can see using Google Earth). But the old maps and the new imagery don’t always line up correctly, leading to what Alan R. Lulloff, the science services program director with the Association of State Floodplain Managers, called a “warping” effect.

“It can show areas that are actually on high ground as being in the flood hazard area when they’re not,” he said. “That’s the biggest problem.”

When FEMA issued new maps last year for Livingston Parish in Louisiana, near Baton Rouge, they included new elevation data. But the flood studies, said Eddie Aydell III, the chief engineer with Alvin Fairburn in Denham Springs, La., who examined the maps, were “a conglomeration of many different ancient engineering studies” dating from the 1980s to 2001. The mapmakers did not match up the new elevation data with the older data correctly, he said, making structures in the parish seem lower than they really are.

“It’s going to be a nightmare for the residents of our parish,” he said.

Bonnie Marston’s parents, Jim and Glynda Childs, moved to Andover, Maine, where Marston lives with her husband, in 2010 with the intention of building a house. But when they applied for a loan the bank told them that FEMA’s new flood maps for the county, issued the year before, had placed the land on which they planned to build in a special flood hazard area. The cost: a $3,200 annual flood insurance bill, which the Childs had to pay upfront.

Marston spent about $1,400 to hire a surveyor, who concluded her parents did not belong in a special flood hazard area. FEMA eventually removed the requirement for them to buy flood insurance — though it didn’t actually update the map. The bank refunded the flood insurance premium, but Marston said FEMA wouldn’t refund the cost of the survey.

“In my mind it’s a huge rip-off,” Marston said.

Edgar, 68, a retired IBM software developer, said she couldn’t understand why FEMA thought her house was suddenly at risk of flooding. When she called FEMA and asked, she said the agency couldn’t tell her.

“They just said, ‘You need to buy flood insurance,’” she said, and told her she could apply for what’s known as a letter of map amendment if she thought she’d been mapped into a special flood hazard area in error. She worried that being in a high-risk flood area would diminish the value of her home.

Her husband, Thomas, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, knew David R. Maidment, a civil engineering professor there who is an expert on flood insurance mapping. While she hired a surveyor and wrangled with FEMA, Maidment and several of his Ph.D. students drove up to the ranch to study it as a class project.

The experience, Maidment said, showed him “in a very small microcosm” the importance of using up-to-date elevation data in new maps. The Texas state government paid to map Burnet County, where the Edgars’ ranch is located, in 2011 using lidar. But FEMA’s new maps for the county don’t include the lidar data.

FEMA removed the Edgars from the special flood hazard area in March, but again it hasn’t actually changed the maps. Letters of map amendment acknowledge that FEMA’s maps were incorrect without actually changing them. While the Edgars don’t have to buy flood insurance, the new, inaccurate maps remain.

Darling, the county’s director of environmental services, said he had gotten calls from dozens of homeowners with similar complaints about the new flood maps.

“We’ve still got ‘em coming in,” he said.

The contractor that created the new maps appeared to have taken shortcuts in drawing them, Darling said. Without new lidar data, he added, issuing a new map is “just a waste of money.”

The experience, Edgar said, had left her feeling deeply frustrated, as a both homeowner and a taxpayer. FEMA hasn’t reimbursed her for the surveying costs or for the flood insurance premium she and her husband paid. “It falls to the homeowner to hire a professional engineer and pay” hundreds, even thousands, “to disprove what I would call their shoddy work,” she said. “I don’t think that’s fair.”

Have you experienced problems with FEMA's flood maps firsthand? Let us know.

diane vuillequez

July 18, 2013, 1:54 p.m.

Fema put our home in the wetlands of our property. However, I persisted with my insurance agent and she knew who to call at Fema and had the zone changed immediately. Further, I was returned $2000 for two years improper insurance and now am charged less than half that per annum for the correct zone.
Too many people are being charged for an insurance policy that can never be collected on.

Peter Anderson

July 18, 2013, 1:57 p.m.

After reading your story, it is clear that the focus the piece puts on FEMA as the culprit is wrong. Rather the culprit that the facts in the story point to is the Congress and the Administration, who only provided sufficient funding for FEMA to correctly do the highly populated coasts, leaving too little to do the less dense areas in between correctly.

Shame here on ProPublica’s editors, not on FEMA.

FEMA needs to do their job.

patricia parks

July 18, 2013, 2:32 p.m.

we bought a condo in late 2004 on the edge of a 60’ cliff on a lake that is controlled with dams. chase bank forced flood ins for 4+ years as we tried to get an elevation survey done.  they finally ceased and we never saw a penny returned to us.  while i was trying to do my own research,(and that included talking to fema several times and getting no direction for assistance) i discovered that we would have to pay for the survey ourselves.  it was finally resolved, but i believe that banks and their subsidiaries(ins companies?) may have been trying to defray some of the costs of this decade+ of costly natural disasters.  whatever the reason, we need a consumer protection agency to look out for the individuals.

Right, Peter Anderson, because your government is infallible.

“Inadequate funding.”

Can anyone show me a government bureaucracy that has every believed its had “adequate” funding?

I bet I could find a couple of thousand unnecessary paper pushers in FEMA that could be let go to free up money for actual beneficial WORK.

Richard McEnroe

July 18, 2013, 2:49 p.m.

At the property we are purchasing, the FEMA flood plain information takes no notice of the actual terrain gradation and elevation of property within the designated flood zone wherein the FEMA contractor apparently just drew a large oval along the length of the relevant creek bed.  Our house is adjacent to an historic cemetery in existence since the mid 1800’s that has never flooded, but we are still being required to carry flood insurance.

I seriously doubt if any American was surprised by this article’s disclosures.  The EPA makes similar faulty decisions everyday based on similar faulty scientific studies.

“Not enough funding, pure and simple,” Young said.

Poor setting of priorities, says strapped taxpayer.

robin hood in reverse

July 18, 2013, 3:10 p.m.

Some revisions ahead of creek put my house on a flood plan before an addition on the back. While being brought out, we sat in that addition with the engineer.

Before moving I went round and round with FEMA three times and we move to lake. Round and round with FEMA five times in ten years.

With all the GIS information available, this stupidity should stop.

The new flood plains are a scam so FEMA can pay the bills for Katrina.

Bruce J Fernandes

July 18, 2013, 3:11 p.m.

Years ago, I lived in Fremont, CA very close to a flood zone.  I was not in the zone but for years residents two streets over were fighting the designation because they had to pay higher insurance costs.

Low and behold we got one of those pesky 100 year storms and that street flooded and my wife had to curb our car and leave the car to walk home having misjudged the water depth on her way home.

Everyone better relax and make sure they are getting it right because it turned out our flood map was dead on.

My experience with updating Flood Zone maps in my part of Pennsylvania is that FEMA pushes down proposed maps for review and comment at the local level. The way I found out was a notice was in the local newspaper. Problems like this are expected to be raised before the finalized maps are issued. I saw it as a big problem because we had many local governments trying to give approval to one map….disjointed to say the least. Some are not funded or have the expertise to do a good quality review. Assuming you get notice that FEMA is updating the Flood Zone maps, you had better find the right point of contact locally to ensure your property is not adversely impacted. My question would be who reviewed the maps at the local level?

This a standard FEMA procedure.

After placing parts of Palo Alto in the flood zone for a few years, they changed their mind and took these parts out of the serious flood zone… but not for long. Two years afterwards there are back.

The areas in question have not seen a minor flooding for decades. The last in the 1990s caused some damage in some low parts close to a creek rose due to the bad maintenance of the creek, which has since been cleared of the blockage.

In the parts in question, the water rose a few inches, and none of the houses were affected in the slightest, as they are intentionally built about a foot higher than the pavement.

Try to sell or refinance a house in that part. The inspectors work according to the FEMA zoning, and the insurance characters clearly state “No Elevation” to garner some $2000 in premium every year.

Anyway, why do we pay taxes to the city, the state or federal government?

A recent discussion by the city recently suggests that they intend to make the house owner pay for the repairs of the pavements outside his home. The state is in its usual coma, and the federal government prefers to spend its revenue on bloody wars while some people drown, and others finance recoveries from disasters that are clear and expected and can be forecast by a High School student!

In our case, our home (which is on a ridge near a small pond that is part of the Dallas, Texas, drainage system) is in the flood plain. However, portions of the pond itself are not in the flood plain.

If only the government had access to, say, some kind of unmanned aerial vehicles that could get the numbers to within a yard or so, and maybe a satellite to come back and increase the resolution to about two or three inches.

Oh, right.  We have both (a quick web search turned up a 5cm resolution for the KH-7-1966 2 spy satellite).  We’ll use them to track imaginary terrorists (read as: monitor activists) and kill people overseas, of course, but using them to help people?  Oh, no, that’s just insane.  Much more economical and effective for FEMA to put boots on the ground over the course of decades and leave the military hardware to killing.

Can the government not combine a satellite map showing property lines, a satellite map showing approximate elevation and satellite maps showing high flood?
Automatically, without bureaucratic participation?
Oh, wait…

The cost of doing maps should be dropping as UAVs gain better LIDAR, prices continue to come down, and legal barriers to using these semi-automated survey methods expire.

FEMA needs to be documenting their database better and offering ways for private parties to improve their home values by undertaking these less expensive survey methods and have them truly integrate that into their own data. That won’t help in 2013 but if it had been done in 2010, it could have been helping today. So are we going to be just as unprepared in 2016?

Yes, FEMA needs to do their job..for free. Maybe those moocher gummint employees can pay for this mapping outta their own pockets lined as they are with the vast sums of money they’re not being paid.

This isn’t FEMA’s problem. This is akin to beating your horse when it cannot pull a ten ton load without being fed.

The nihilists in Congress simply want to bring it all down around our heads in the fantasy that they and their wealthy patrons will be able to rise to the top in the new feudal America.

Seems that there are some Reptards here who believe they can demand government services without paying taxes to support those services. Raygun started choking the Federal Government years ago and Bush and his Reptardian allies finished it off in 2002 and 2003 with the Bush tax cuts and then two unfunded wars. But Reptards blame the government for being inefficient.

Close enough for government work.  No accountability.

No one in his right mind would object to paying taxes, however low or high they may be.

Ignoring your unpleasant name-calling, my question was “why do we pay taxes” if not for protecting communities, wherever they are, and threatened by whatever natural or man-made phenomena.

When the City Council of Palo Alto zoned the area it decided it suitable for single-home dwellings. In that it implicitly vouched that such an area is not likely to be turned into ponds for fishes or other sea creatures.

And when the city ignores repairing a creek, and postpones updating the 1940s drainage system, as is the case in Palo Alto, until after the aforementioned flood, one begins to question the priorities of government.

Palo Alto City repaired the creek and it is near the stages of upgrading the drainage system across the city. I believe we subscribed to a major indebtedness to the bond holders in Wall Street, not a government resource which would have been even more rewarding than ‘Quantitative Easing’ by the Fed on our economy.

Still, FIMA’s modifications of the flood zone in Palo Alto is unlikely to happen, despite the fact that the resulting study pointed to the safety of the homes in the previously-declared ‘serious flood zones’ after the repairs

This illustrates to anyone, without partisan blinders, the inefficiencies of government, at the local, state and federal levels.

I would say that taking a look at FEMA’s Charter is sufficient to reach such a conclusion, anyway. FEMA deals with catastrophes after they occur. Most of the tragedies from water can be foreseen and prevented, as the City of Palo Alto finally did. There is no federal agency, however, looking into prevention of disasters, nor, for that matter attending to the dilapidated bridges, roads and other vital infrastructures which enables the communities of creating the wealth and ‘paying their taxes.’

But, again, it is not the question of taxes, which sane cannot grudge payment, but in the way the government spends its revenue, which ironically end up, any way, in the coffers of private enterprise!

Goerge W. Bush’s wars need no comment. But he was of course, the ‘government.’ Still, his successor, after five years, seems to be continuing one, in Afghanistan, and contemplating another in Syria!

Which is more important to a hard-working Palo Altan, to a hard-working American? 

All this is government. And the cry “by the people, for the people” has become a stale partisan chant, between ‘Twiddle Dee and Twiddle Dum.’

And some seemingly do thrive on that, at times even without the blinders!

FEMA has correctly moved me out of the flood plane of the Red Ceder River here in Williamston, MI.  Although my house is on the river bank, we are about 300 feet from the stream and about 12 feet above flood stage, the actual flood plane is the other side of the stream.  For almost 20 years we spent about a thousand bucks a year for insurance.  Nice to not have to pay that any more.

It still baffles me as to how this can happen.  It’s not a matter of money, as the US govt has access to highly detailed imagery and elevation maps of the entire world from taxpayer-funded satellites.  Why isn’t FEMA getting access to that?

diane vuillequez

July 19, 2013, 9:13 a.m.

I honestly believe that FEMA hoped it could slide this stuff by because it takes so much labor to do surveying, and if the onus is put on the (improperly) insured that takes the weight off them. I pursued this for more than two years and got results through the help of a very astute insurance agent ( see first comment) who had my zone changed and my money returned. She was great!

Concerned Citizen

July 19, 2013, 3:35 p.m.

FEMA creates the mapping and it is used by determination companies… these companies use buffers and parcels to determine the flood risk of properties… if it crosses your parcel, you bet you will be seeing a letter from your mortgage company.

FEMA uses the Letter of Map Amendment to prepare localized determinations based on information provided by a home owner… this determination stays with the home. 

Even after all of that the mortgage companies remain able to require flood insurance be purchased and can force place it on your escrow account.  Be aware of your risk, do your homework, decide what risk you are willing to accept and insure that which you are not. 

Having purchased and sold a number of homes throughout the country, I think knowing this is makes you the consumer all powerful.

A good advice for a new home buyer.
The flood insurance requirements started a decade after we were settled. In that sense, and if I understand the argument of ‘Concerned Citizen,’ the consumers in most of Palo Alto, CA, have little or not choice other than abandoning their homes and looking for a house atop one of the Sierra Nevada Mountains!

Why should the consumer by powerful or weak? What enemies is the consumer supposed to tackle? And if there are some entity to conquer, what is the role of my government, in the ‘fight’?

I am aware that the answers are immediately available to these questions. The problem is that they should not be posed in the first place.

I suppose the dream of a government standing for all the consumer, is somewhat unattainable.

So, I pay my annual $2000 and wonder if my children or grandchildren will ever have a government purified from overt partnership with the insurance and other corporations.

There is enough history, insurance companies have claim records, the weather bureau has weather records…  Lets create hazard maps based on events and history not how far from the rivers edge do you live. 

Lets create insurance rates based on historical claims submitted and let those that have benefitted the most pay the most, as obviously they have chosen to live in a hazardous area.

Just because FEMA says some property is within xx feet from the rivers axis does not mean it is at risk.

Lets get real here.  Lets use empirical data not arbitrary rules and predictions.

Leslie Sustaita

July 20, 2013, 10:42 a.m.

FEMA doesn’t have the funds to update their maps so the citizens have to dig in their own pockets to cover them?  They don’t have the FUNDS?
Maybe it’s due to all the coffin liners they’re purchasing.  Our government won’t help a CITY in America that has gone bankrupt but bails out Bank of America, which is owned by the Rothchilds?  Good God almighty.  It’s time for a change America.  Truly.

diane vuillequez

July 20, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

We found out how intensely screwed up FEMA was when Katrina hit, and as a matter of fact before with Morris at the helm. Do we really expect the maps to be current? I believe that every consumer must watch out for him or herself, to demand to see the map they are located on through their insurance agent.

Larry Lincoln

July 22, 2013, 5:44 p.m.

We do Elevation Certificates and LOMA’s in Silicon Valley.  The Palo Alto flood was caused by a giant tree planted when Jane was founding Stanford University.  San Francisquity creek took lots of water but when that portion of the bank gave as the tree came down, all kinds of branches, rubbish and leaves reduced the flow so the banks overflowed.  Menlo Park won the coin toss, Palo Alto flooded.  Several feet of water wandered through parts of town….through no fault of FEMA who would stand no chance of telling the people of Palo Alto to cut down a magnificent advance. 

San Jose spent money improving the capacity of creeks that are loosing capacity due to filling with dirt and bushes, and even trees…they will eventually be a problem and FEMA can’t take the blame.

In 10 years I have found that much of what FEMA does makes sense. I am guessing that if I knew more about what they know, more would make sense.  Still, maps with 1”=1000’ mean that a 0.1” misplacement on the map means 100’ on the ground.  LOL silly.

Larry Lincoln

July 22, 2013, 5:56 p.m.

Look at Biggert-Waters 2012 (I call it Full Employment for Land Surveyors Act)...I think they gave it a name suggesting fixing flood insurance.  Now someone who trusted the government to tell them how high was safe enough to build will need to pay full risk (actuarial) rates.  In an AE zone, it appears that just a little low will net a $3,000 per year premium, unless I did the math wrong.  AE a lot low… off the chart, so I pass on the rumor of maybe 6000.

Hermann Helmholtz

July 22, 2013, 6:47 p.m.

I am fascinated by the insurance companies, their agents and their forgotten associates, the “Elevation Certificates” producers!

With their sharp eyes they determined that the floods in Palo Alto reached “several feet”!

Now, since the City government was responsible for the mini-disaster which was really limited a single neighborhood of a city of several, those ‘knowledgeable’ experts, stand with stretched arms, defending FEMA and its maps, which patently ignore the available drainage system - in existence or further upgraded!

Palo Altans subject to the infamous FEMA zones continue in the meantime to pay the same premium they ever did, and their only solace is to remember the other, less dangerous, contribution of Mrs. Jane Stanford, in erecting one of the finest University in the land. 

Actually the University was a memorial erected by both, Governor Stanford and Jane in memory of their son, after which the University was named. But this is a minor mistake in the history of Palo Alto insurers, agents and “Elevation Certificate” experts, need not bother about.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
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