Flawed FEMA Maps, Flood Insurance, and Disaster Recovery

Residential flood insurance is available almost exclusively through the federal government. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) maps floodplains nationwide to identify the relative risk of flooding in any given area (see FEMA flood maps here). A recent investigation by Jeff Rossen and Avni Patel of TODAY News revealed that many of these FEMA maps are decades out of date, forcing thousands of homeowners to pay for unnecessary (and very costly) flood insurance. [See the full report at TODAY.] Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is quoted as calling the FEMA flood map program “one big mess”, and pointing out that “These are middle-class, hard-working people” being affected, “They’d not get a mortgage, lose their homes.”

Old FEMA maps are not the only problem, however. Just last year, the small town of Sikeston, MO, began the long process of contesting a FEMA map completed in 2012. The 2012 maps delivered to the city significantly expanded the designated floodplains within the city. The new maps would have adversely affected property values and seriously complicated zoning in the city. City officials contest the accuracy of the new maps, however. According to a report in the Southeast Missourian (June 7, 2012) officials argue that one of the newly designated floodplains includes “Sikeston ridge” – clearly implying the impossibility that this area be in actual danger of flooding. City officials submitted their appeal and a revised map to FEMA on September 13, 2013 – more than 15 months after finding the alleged error – illustrating just how long and difficult the appeal process can be (You can read more here).

A similar scenario is beginning to unfold in Lynn, Oklahoma – the small Oklahoma City suburb ravaged by a devastating tornado in the late spring of 2013. As early as June, OK-SAFE, a non-profit based out of Oklahoma City, began to report that some tornado victims who had lost their homes were concerned that they would not be allowed to rebuild because of where their homes were located (read the original report at OK-SAFE). A recent news story from Lynn, OK (the Daily Item) elaborated on the problem. Item writer Chris Stevens reports that the (“old”) 2012 FEMA maps place about 346 structures in a flood zone – the (new) 2014 maps place more than 1,200 structures in a flood zone. The new maps could affect residents’ and business owners’ rebuilding attempts – and will certainly (and drastically) increase the cost of flood insurance in Lynn (for the full story, see ItemLive).

As citizens and municipalities attempt to come to grips with the changing face of disaster planning, management, and recovery in the United States – especially the nationalization of coordination and planning in FEMA – we have to hope that errant maps and lengthy appeals do not come to typify public dialogue regarding disaster recovery (or flood insurance policy) around the country. Unfortunately, as we watch the unfolding flooding disaster in Colorado, and the recovery that is only just beginning, we may well see more of the same.

Since not all our readers know what a flood plain map looks like, we thought we’d post one. Below is the flood plain map of Jackson county, IL, home of Disasters, Property, and Politics. We purchased this through the FEMA Map Service Center for $2.50.

FEMA map of Jackson County, Illinois.

FEMA map of Jackson County, Illinois.

Olive Branch Rebuilding Update

For readers who have been following flood recovery in the Mississippi Valley:

Emily Priddy at the SEMissourian reports here that the appraisal process for the FEMA buyouts in Olive Branch have begun.

Southern Illinois University in Carbondale has been involved in the work to help Olive Branch. Here’s a link to an article from about a year ago concerning faculty and grad student involvement.