Mil­lions of home­own­ers who need spe­cial in­sur­ance don’t know it — thanks to fed­eral agency


When Michael Wilson was in the process of buy­ing a brick bun­ga­low on Chicago’s South Side in Oc­to­ber 2018, he thought he had been dili­gent in re­search­ing the flood risk.

Tour­ing the house’s fin­ished base­ment, the 43-year-old Wilson saw no out­ward signs of wa­ter dam­age, and he said the real es­tate agent had no knowl­edge of a flood his­tory at the home or while it had been on the mar­ket. Wilson also hired a wa­ter­proof­ing spe­cial­ist to in­spect the home for ev­i­dence of past flood­ing or struc­tural con­cerns.

Yet just two months af­ter he bought the home, it flooded. Then this May, af­ter sev­eral days of heavy rain­fall across Chicago, it flooded again, with wa­ter streaming in the base­ment through the back door, seep­ing through the walls and bub­bling up from the drains. At its peak, about a foot of dusky wa­ter soaked the fam­ily’s leather couch, ta­bles and en­ter­tain­ment cen­ter.

Be­cause the house isn’t in a Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency spe­cial flood haz­ard area, Wilson wasn’t re­quired to have flood in­sur­ance. His home in­sur­ance pol­icy in­cluded some cov­er­age for sewer back­ups, but not nearly enough to cover the dam­age he’s ex­pe­ri­enced.

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’re 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.

While FEMA placed Wilson’s house out­side the high-risk zone, this re­port says the prop­erty faces a “ma­jor” risk and is vul­ner­a­ble to the type of flood­ing that would man­date flood in­sur­ance. In Cook County, where Chicago and its sub­urbs are lo­cated, the new model found more than 150,000 prop­er­ties are at high risk — about six times as many as FEMA’s es­ti­mate.

In an emailed state­ment, a FEMA spokesper­son said its maps “ad­e­quately” serve the in­tended pur­pose of flood­plain man­age­ment.

“We’re en­cour­aged to see First Street Foun­da­tion build­ing on fed­eral agency datasets . ... FEMA is con­tin­u­ously work­ing with our agency part­ners to develop a more comprehens­ive pic­ture of flood haz­ard and flood risk across the na­tion.”

The first free, comprehens­ive re­source on flood risk that’s ac­ces­si­ble to the pub­lic, the First Street web­site shows the cur­rent and fu­ture flood risk at any ad­dress through 2050. The new model gives a more nu­anced view than FEMA’s maps, show­ing how each prop­erty is sus­cep­ti­ble to a va­ri­ety of floods, in­clud­ing ones that are more or less se­vere than the 1% flood.

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 model in­cor­po­rates 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.”

Over­all, the First Street model shows many more prop­er­ties at high risk than FEMA does, but there are lo­cal­ized ar­eas where FEMA deems more homes at risk than First Street. Oliver Wing, chief re­search of­fi­cer at Fathom, a flood risk in­tel­li­gence com­pany that worked on the First Street as­sess­ment, said that’s likely due to the dif­fer­ent ways that they ex­trap­o­lated, from in­com­plete data, the ex­tent of the 1% flood.

The First Street sci­en­tists have pub­lished most of their method­ol­ogy in peer-re­viewed pa­pers, and they’ve been well re­ceived by out­side re­searchers, said Ni­cholas Pin­ter, a flood haz­ard ex­pert at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Davis, who wasn’t in­volved in the First Street model. Pin­ter said its re­port “leapfrogs” FEMA’s ef­forts, in large part be­cause it makes the in­for­ma­tion eas­ily avail­able to con­sumers and ac­counts for the fu­ture risk from cli­mate change. In the long term, he said, it could af­fect real es­tate mar­kets and steer home­buy­ers from risky ar­eas.

The ur­ban flood­ing blind spot

FEMA as­sesses flood risk us­ing river flow data gath­ered from stream gauges, a painstak­ing process that leaves most of the coun­try un­mapped.

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 wouldn’t fully ac­count for flood risks from rain­fall, in­clud­ing in ur­ban ar­eas far from rivers and streams. Wing said ur­ban flood­ing is hard to model, and First Street has de­signed its model so it can be quickly up­dated as data on ur­ban risks and cli­mate change im­pacts im­proves over time.

The dis­crep­ancy be­tween the FEMA and First Street mod­els is par­tic­u­larly stark in ar­eas with drainage sys­tems that can’t 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, said Mar­cella Bondie Keenan, direc­tor of cli­mate plan­ning at the Cen­ter for Neigh­bor­hood Tech­nol­ogy, a Chicago-based think tank fo­cused on sus­tain­abil­ity and ur­ban de­vel­op­ment. “None of that is shown on the [FEMA] flood­plain maps.”

In short, Wing said, FEMA is “miss­ing what hap­pens if a crapload of rain falls down­town.”

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.

Illi­nois has warmed about 1.2 de­grees and ex­pe­ri­enced 10% to 15% more pre­cip­i­ta­tion over the last cen­tury, ac­cord­ing to the Illi­nois State Cli­ma­tol­o­gist’s of­fice. But the rain­fall is not uni­form — it’s 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 lo­cated 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’s eas­ier to jus­tify buy­outs in the FEMA-des­ig­nated ar­eas.

The un­mapped ones are left to flood, with lit­tle warn­ing or rem­edy for home­own­ers.

The toll

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. Over 90% of those in­sur­ance and dis­as­ter as­sis­tance claims were for prop­er­ties out­side of the FEMA flood­plain — where res­i­dents weren’t re­quired to buy flood in­sur­ance and might not have been alerted to the risk when they bought their homes.

If any­thing, the First Street model still un­der­es­ti­mates risk in some prop­er­ties, be­cause its anal­y­sis is based on ground-level flood­ing, as are the FEMA maps. An­drew Smith, chief op­er­a­tions of­fi­cer at Fathom, said base­ments can flood more fre­quently than the model sug­gests.

Ri­cardo Ber­mejo’s house in Cicero, a sub­urb west of Chicago, has flooded twice since 2014, though it’s out­side FEMA’s high-risk zone and has a min­i­mal risk score on the First Street web­site.

The last ma­jor flood oc­curred in May, when Ber­mejo, 33, found stormwa­ter surg­ing in through the back door af­ter days of heavy rain across the re­gion. He tried to hold back the wa­ter by block­ing the door with a few bags of ce­ment, but sewage wa­ter be­gan to bub­ble up through the floor drain in the cen­ter of his un­fin­ished base­ment.

By the end of the night, about 2 feet of murky sewer wa­ter had crept up the walls, sub­merged boxes of Ber­mejo’s be­long­ings, soaked his fur­ni­ture and seeped inside his washer and dryer.

“It kind of took me by sur­prise,” Ber­mejo said. “I was not pre­pared.”

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.”

The wors­en­ing floods of­ten af­fect low­er­in­come com­mu­ni­ties of color, which are also less likely to have flood in­sur­ance.

Be­tween 2007 and 2016, there were nearly 230,000 flood-re­lated claims in Chicago re­sult­ing in $433 mil­lion in pay­outs, ac­cord­ing to a 2018 re­port from the Cen­ter for Neigh­bor­hood Tech­nol­ogy. Of those, 87% of paid flood claims were lo­cated in com­mu­ni­ties of color.

Many of the com­mu­ni­ties with the high­est to­tals of flood pay­outs were on the city’s Far South and West sides. The com­mu­ni­ties that had the high­est flood pay­outs also tended to have higher fore­clo­sure rates, ac­cord­ing to the anal­y­sis.

ProPublica ex­am­ined the top 10 cen­sus tracts in Cook County where First Street found the largest num­ber of ad­di­tional prop­er­ties that qual­ify as high-risk com­pared with the FEMA data. Eight of those 10 tracts are ma­jor­ity non­white. That in­cludes one cen­sus tract that is 99% His­panic and an­other that’s 98% Black.

Flood in­sur­ance is cru­cial for help­ing these com­mu­ni­ties re­cover af­ter dis­as­ters be­cause they lack the wealth to re­build and are of­ten locked out of ac­cess to credit, said Carolyn Kousky, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Whar­ton Risk Cen­ter at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia.

And while the govern­ment some­times pro­vides di­rect re­lief to unin­sured flood vic­tims, that only ap­plies in ma­jor dis­as­ters, and the aid typ­i­cally adds up to less than $10,000 per fam­ily. (Kousky is on the ad­vi­sory board of First Street Foun­da­tion but did not par­tic­i­pate in de­sign­ing the model.)

Re­quir­ing more low-in­come res­i­dents to pur­chase flood in­sur­ance could price them out of their homes, but ex­perts say Congress could avoid that by sub­si­diz­ing rates based on need and by free­ing up more funds for vol­un­tary buy­outs to re­move flood-prone prop­er­ties.

With racial and wealth gaps ev­i­dent through­out the re­gion, flood­ing adds an­other layer of fi­nan­cial hard­ship on mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties across the Chicago area, said Cameron Davis, com­mis­sioner of the Metropoli­tan Wa­ter Recla­ma­tion District of Greater Chicago. Once pub­lic of­fi­cials have ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion show­ing the full ex­tent of the prob­lem, they can be­gin to ease this bur­den for those who need it most.

“It’s not just about the en­vi­ron­ment. It’s not just about the eco­nomics of flood­ing. It’s eq­uity, too,” Davis said. “We have some com­mu­ni­ties that can­not af­ford [the fi­nan­cial bur­den from flood­ing]. There’s a big dis­crep­ancy and they’re not get­ting the level at­ten­tion that they need — and they need a lot of help.”

Note from First Street: First Street’s flood and cli­mate change risk es­ti­mates are based on one or more mod­els de­signed to ap­prox­i­mate risk and are not in­tended as pre­cise es­ti­mates, or to be a comprehens­ive anal­y­sis of, all pos­si­ble flood-re­lated and cli­mate change risks.


The Chicago River over­flowed its banks and flooded the River­walk in May.


A woman walks past a flooded field on May 18 at Humboldt Park.


City work­ers re­move wa­ter from Lower Wacker Drive near Ran­dolph Street in May af­ter overnight flood­ing from heavy rain.


Tris­ton Bakulin­ski pulls Lea Civitella and his dad Stan­ley Bakulin­ski af­ter the Des Plaines River flooded fol­low­ing days of heavy rain in May.


Ri­cardo Ber­mejo’s house in Cicero has flooded twice since 2014, though it’s out­side FEMA’s high-risk zone and has a min­i­mal risk score on the First Street web­site.

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