Flood Maps Miss Risk Factors

The US Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) national flood insurance program has a non-governmental competitor. Here’s a Times piece about a Brooklyn-based non-governmental outfit called First Street Foundation. They’ve put together an online address lookup scheme called Flood Factor that returns a risk of flood at a property. They claim that FEMA’s rating system, based on Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs), is flawed because it misses flood risks from large rainstorms and sea level rise due to global climate change. They’re probably right. Certainly the US government has been robbed of its ability to investigate this sort of thing (in the summer of 2020) because of the official policy of climate science denial.

IN 1979-1980 I worked on a FEMA project to digitize the FIRMS and match them to the US Census Bureau’s GBF/DIME files being prepared for the 1980 census. Forty years on it’s much easier to do this than it was then.  Various purveyors of online maps have really good data. Back the data was created by junior geographers sitting in front of gigantic digitizing light boxes clicking along the edges of flood zones on the paper FIRMs.  The GBF/DIME files were made the same way by the census bureau. We then intersected the flood data with the GBF/DIME data and built tables of  state / county / town / street / address-range / flood-rating.  We shipped them off, on 9-track tapes, to Compuserve, who were building a call center where householders could call and ask their flood rating.

The National Flood Insurance Program is a Good Idea if you like Good Government. The intention is to reduce the federal government’s responsibility for spending lots of unbudgeted money on reconstruction when declaring Disaster Areas for floods.   And, it is supposed to give builders and owners a big incentive to stop rebuilding on flood plains, barrier beaches, and other places where high water is likely. That’s enforced by banks, who require federal flood insurance on at-risk properties they mortgage. Seems obvious, right?

Private fire / property / casualty insurance companies in the US do not offer flood insurance.

But we all know how Good Government fares in the US. If some powerful interest is opposed, Good Government is corrupted or sidelined. FEMA asked our little geocoding team to do a side project examining the handling of flood-insurance claims after a flood in New Orleans. (Katrina was big, but smaller floods in New Orleans are frequent.) It quickly became clear that the beltway bandit (government contractor) processing the claims was being very sloppy, paying multiple claims on the same properties. Somebody had figured out how to rip off the flood insurance program.

That contractor was EDS Federal, owned by Ross Perot. They didn’t like being caught. So they had our geocoding program shut down when the US administration changed hands in January 1981.  It was probably for the best. Digitized paper maps aren’t very accurate. And, Census’s files were riddled with systematic errors like missing cross-streets in Chicago’s Black neighborhoods.

It’s terrific that First Street Foundation can now do this geocoding project without government-furnished data. permission, or funding. But will it make a difference? Not as long as FEMA controls the flood insurance system: they’ve been subject to regulatory capture by construction and real estate interests for decades now.   This new project might make a small difference if states or other jurisdictions decide to use them as part of the permitting process for new construction. But builders know how to work around these kinds of things.

Disclosure.  I have the illusion that I own a house on Plum Island, Massachusetts. It’s a barrier island on the Gulf of Maine on the north Atlantic. My flood insurance rating is “B”, meaning my place will get standing water in a “500-year flood.” (Illusion? Yes. King Neptune actually owns the house, and will demolish it when he wants.)  I am pretty sure that rating is correct, but I still try to avoid storing stuff in the cellar. Some of my neighbors have the rating “V27”, meaning the 100-year flood will hit them with a wave 27ft above high tide. New houses in those zones are being built on stilts.  But the TV news trucks still rush to Plum Island in big storms hoping for some smashed-building porn to broadcast.

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