Flood risks across USA worse than many think

Model finds 40% un­der­count in FEMA flood list

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Kyle Ba­gen­stose, Di­nah Pul­ver and Kevin Crowe

A new, na­tion­wide flood mod­el­ing tool re­leased Mon­day paints a pic­ture of the U.S. as a coun­try woe­fully un­der­pre­pared for dam­ag­ing floods, now and in the fu­ture.

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s best ef­forts to pre­dict where flood­ing will strike have un­der­es­ti­mated the risk to nearly 6 mil­lion homes and com­mer­cial prop­er­ties pri­mar­ily in the na­tion’s in­te­rior, leav­ing them un­pre­pared for potential dev­as­ta­tion, the anal­y­sis shows.

Mean­while, the model pre­pares coastal states and cities for risks to come as their com­mu­ni­ties head to­ward a fu­ture of more in­tense storms and ris­ing seas.

Ex­perts say the anal­y­sis is the lat­est ev­i­dence of a decades-long bungling of flood plan­ning and pol­icy at mul­ti­ple lev­els of gov­ern­ment across the coun­try. And it presents dif­fi­cult new ques­tions about who will pay bil­lions of dol­lars to save com­mu­ni­ties from go­ing un­der­wa­ter: home­own­ers, towns and cities, or the U.S. tax­payer?

“Who is go­ing to pay and how we are go­ing to pay is the ul­ti­mate ques­tion,” said A.R. Siders, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Delaware’s Dis­as­ter Re­search Cen­ter.

The anal­y­sis was con­ducted by the First Street Foun­da­tion, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that paired dozens of sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers with re­searchers from aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions in­clud­ing the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia-Berke­ley, Ge­orge Ma­son Univer­sity and Rut­gers Univer­sity. The team com­bined sev­eral ex­ist­ing mod­els of sea level rise, river­ine flood­ing and sim­u­la­tions of ex­treme weather events into a sin­gle, na­tion­wide flood as­sess­ment model that ex­am­ined risk in all states ex­cept Alaska and Hawaii.

While in­surance and in­vest­ment com­pa­nies, such as Black­rock, have long used their own pri­vate mod­els to make de­ci­sions, First Street will al­low users of its Flood Fac­tor site to view

flood risks to in­di­vid­ual prop­er­ties and cre­ated a Flood Lab that al­lows aca­demic re­searchers to fur­ther ac­cess data for re­search.

The group’s mod­el­ing is “ex­actly what we need to be do­ing,” said Kerry Em­manuel, a pro­fes­sor of at­mo­spheric sci­ence at MIT who serves on First Street’s ad­vi­sory board. “Un­til re­cently we didn’t have peo­ple putting all these lit­tle pieces to­gether. We had re­ally good peo­ple work­ing on that lit­tle piece of the prob­lem and good peo­ple work­ing on an­other lit­tle cor­ner.”

First Street’s newly com­bined model found that about 14.6 mil­lion homes and other struc­tures across the coun­try face a 1% an­nual risk of flood­ing, rep­re­sent­ing about one out of ev­ery 10 such real es­tate parcels na­tion­wide. But First Street cal­cu­lated that cur­rent maps de­vel­oped by the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency list just 8.7 mil­lion prop­er­ties in the flood­plain, a 40% un­der­count com­pared with what First Street found.

And the sit­u­a­tion is get­ting worse. In ad­di­tion to a present-day anal­y­sis, First Street’s mod­el­ing in­cor­po­rated 2050 pro­jec­tions from the In­ter­na­tional Panel on Cli­mate Change, the United Na­tions’ pri­mary sci­en­tific body on the is­sue. The con­clu­sion: An­other 1.6 mil­lion prop­er­ties will be at 1% an­nual risk of flood­ing by 2050.

The 1% thresh­old is the gold stan­dard used by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to as­sess which home­own­ers are re­quired to buy flood in­surance. But ex­perts say it’s also mis­lead­ing, as it ac­tu­ally equates a 1-in-4 chance of flood­ing over the course of a 30-year mort­gage. Lo­cal and county plan­ners also use the thresh­old to de­ter­mine which ar­eas are safe to de­velop.

Many flood ex­perts said the dis­crep­ancy be­tween the two mod­els wasn’t sur­pris­ing, given the lim­i­ta­tions baked into FEMA’s cal­cu­la­tions. The fed­eral agency is stretched thin, strug­gling to keep its flood maps up to date, par­tic­u­larly for in­land ar­eas per­ceived to be less vul­ner­a­ble than the coasts, ex­perts said. The agency also looks only at his­tor­i­cal data to as­sess where flood­ing could strike next, leav­ing out cur­rent and fu­ture mod­els.

Eric Tate, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Iowa who early in his ca­reer built flood mod­el­ing tools as a FEMA con­trac­tor, agreed the agency’s maps can be out­dated, miss lower-pri­or­ity ar­eas and at times be­come sub­ject to po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence through a re­vi­sion pro­cess.

“As a re­sult of all of these, there’s a lack of uni­for­mity na­tion­wide,” said Tate, who plans to use First Street’s data in his re­search. “You have a map here that’s based on this set of data, and this way of anal­y­sis. And then you have an­other map some­where else, and it’s dif­fer­ent.”

“Who is go­ing to pay and how we are go­ing to pay is the ul­ti­mate ques­tion.” A.R. Siders, Univer­sity of Delaware’s Dis­as­ter Re­search Cen­ter

Maps vs. mod­els

FEMA’s maps and First Street’s model de­pict dif­fer­ent kinds of risk and serve dif­fer­ent pur­poses, said FEMA Press Sec­re­tary Lizzie Lit­zow.

The agency sees First Street’s Flood Fac­tor as a tool to in­form a prop­erty owner’s de­ci­sion to buy flood in­surance or take steps to re­duce in­di­vid­ual flood risk, Lit­zow said.

FEMA’s maps re­main the back­bone of ef­fec­tive flood­plain man­age­ment, said David Maurstad, the agency’s deputy as­so­ciate ad­min­is­tra­tor for In­surance and mit­i­ga­tion. Lo­cal adop­tion of min­i­mum stan­dards based on the maps helped avoid $100 bil­lion in losses over the past 40 years, he said.

FEMA’s reg­u­la­tory maps de­pict the 1% chance an­nual event, but flood risks ex­ist out­side that flood plain, Lit­zow said. By the agency’s own ac­count­ing, 20% of flood claims come from prop­er­ties out­side high-risk flood zones.

Although peo­ple try to com­pare flood maps to ac­tual events, Lit­zow said, it’s “not an ap­ples-to-ap­ples com­par­i­son.”

Still, First Street’s anal­y­sis, which used a uni­form mod­el­ing sys­tem across the lower 48 states, helps ex­pose the potential scale of missed risk. Many of the largest dis­crep­an­cies are driven by states and cities not typ­i­cally con­sid­ered at high risk for flood­ing. In Cal­i­for­nia, nearly 600,000 prop­er­ties are at 1% an­nual risk for flood­ing un­der First Street’s model but not un­der FEMA’s. That’s the largest gap of any state.

Chicago leads among all cities: First Street cal­cu­lates that nearly 76,000 ad­di­tional prop­er­ties there should be in the flood­plain.

The im­pli­ca­tions of First Street’s find­ings stretch far beyond huge ur­ban cen­ters.

Un­der its cal­cu­la­tions, no state is more at risk than West Vir­ginia, where moun­tain­ous ter­rain has his­tor­i­cally forced com­mu­ni­ties to crowd near rivers and creeks in deep val­leys. In that state, nearly one out of ev­ery four prop­er­ties reach the 1% risk thresh­old un­der First Street’s model, a higher pro­por­tion than in Florida and Louisiana and a sig­nif­i­cant jump from 1 in 10 prop­er­ties un­der FEMA.

In June 2016, the risk be­came re­al­ity in West Vir­ginia, when heavy rains led to flash flood­ing that killed 23 peo­ple in sev­eral coun­ties.

Even more dra­matic in­creases oc­cur along the Gulf Coast in com­mu­ni­ties in Florida and Texas. In Pine Manor, a neigh­bor­hood sev­eral miles south of Fort Myers, Florida, only 0.3% of prop­er­ties now re­side in FEMA’s 100-year flood­plain. That jumps to 99.6% un­der First Street’s anal­y­sis.

‘Like a CARFAX for homes’

In ad­di­tion to re­leas­ing a re­port with its find­ings, First Street has cre­ated a “Flood Fac­tor” tool the com­pany pro­motes as a way for home­own­ers and buy­ers to eval­u­ate a prop­erty’s risk for flood­ing. The tool also al­lows users to re­view whether the prop­erty flooded in the past, and re­ceive wider sta­tis­tics for their ZIP code, county, and state.

Some say the ap­pli­ca­tion has per­haps the great­est im­pli­ca­tions for any use of First Street’s model. While the tool likely won’t im­me­di­ately trans­form the real es­tate mar­ket, ex­perts pre­dict it will grow as Amer­i­cans be­come more fa­mil­iar with the tool and oth­ers like it.

“This sounds like a CARFAX for homes,” said Larry Bartlett, the prop­erty ap­praiser for Vo­lu­sia County, Florida, home of Day­tona Beach.

But sev­eral ex­perts urged cau­tion, not­ing all mod­els have lim­i­ta­tions.

Wil­liam Sweet, an oceanog­ra­pher with the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion, said the new model may be a “big step for­ward” in un­der­stand­ing risk. But no model is per­fect, he said, and there are still gaps in the un­der­stand­ing of how likely cer­tain weather events are to oc­cur.

“We’ve only been well-po­si­tioned to mon­i­tor these things in the last 50 to 75 years,” Sweet said. “How do we make as­sump­tions and as­sess­ments about to­day’s risk when we can’t re­ally model and mon­i­tor all the com­po­nents that go into cal­cu­lat­ing that risk?”

While de­ter­min­ing a com­mu­nity’s flood risk is chal­leng­ing, ex­perts say equally as daunt­ing is fig­ur­ing out what to do next.

De­ci­sions about build­ing in flood zones are al­most en­tirely made by lo­cal and county gov­ern­ments. Each face their own unique chal­lenges, and many find it dif­fi­cult to give up the short-term ben­e­fits of wa­ter­front de­vel­op­ment be­cause of the chance of a flood decades down the road.

“The in­cen­tives are stacked against” lo­cal lead­er­ship to re­spond proac­tively, Siders said.

But Tate said his­tor­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties, not wealthy ones, face the great­est chal­lenges from flood­ing. His re­cent re­search has found that the pop­u­la­tions ex­posed to the high­est lev­els of flood risk are dis­pro­por­tion­ately African Amer­i­can, Na­tive Amer­i­can and res­i­dents of mo­bile homes.

“Many of these coun­ties and com­mu­ni­ties that have lower ca­pac­ity are also places where the eco­nom­ics aren’t as strong, or there’s a higher per­cent­age of racial mi­nori­ties,” Tate said.

The prob­lem with putting flood risk on the back­burner is that some­one has to pay for it, ex­perts say. The eco­nomic harm driven by de­val­ued real es­tate and in­surance pre­mi­ums is real, but so too are the costs of pick­ing up the pieces after a flood hits.

“There’s al­ways been this kind of ten­sion be­tween want­ing to pro­tect home val­ues, but also want­ing to be clear about risks and man­age those risks ef­fec­tively,” Kousky said. “Those price ad­just­ments re­flect a real un­der­ly­ing risk.”

And cur­rently, U.S. tax­pay­ers sub­si­dize that risk, Kousky said. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s Na­tional Flood In­surance Pro­gram is the pri­mary provider of flood in­surance poli­cies, which is re­quired by law for any prop­erty with a fed­er­ally-backed mort­gage within the 100-year flood­plain.

Kousky said the pro­gram has been un­der­wa­ter ever since Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina wiped out its cof­fers in 2005, fol­lowed by ad­di­tional hits from Hur­ri­canes Ike, Sandy, and Har­vey. In 2017, Congress voted and Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump signed off on $16 bil­lion in debt for­give­ness for the pro­gram. The money the­o­ret­i­cally should have been paid back to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment for use else­where.

FEMA has set ag­gres­sive tar­gets for in­creas­ing in­surance cov­er­age and clos­ing the in­surance gap, Lit­zow said, and is mak­ing some progress work­ing with state, lo­cal, and in­dus­try part­ners to help at-risk com­mu­ni­ties and pro­mote flood in­surance.

The agency “is con­stantly work­ing to im­prove the pro­duc­tion of the Flood In­surance Rate Maps within the con­text of chang­ing con­di­tions,” Maurstad said. “We’re ex­plor­ing ways to lever­age new tech­nolo­gies and pro­vide flood in­for­ma­tion more ef­fi­ciently, ac­cu­rately, and con­sis­tently across the na­tion.”

Ex­perts say there are no easy fixes, as each so­lu­tion cre­ates its own prob­lem. Rais­ing pre­mi­ums can dis­pro­por­tion­ately hurt dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties and drive peo­ple away from in­surance. Re­quir­ing more dis­clo­sure about risks and past flood­ing can pe­nal­ize those who are hon­est and re­ward those who aren’t.

“A fun­da­men­tal piece of this is try­ing to de­cide from a pub­lic val­ues per­spec­tive, how much cat­a­strophic risk we want in­di­vid­ual home­own­ers to bear, and how much we think should be so­cial­ized,” Kousky said.

A flooded fu­ture?

Tick­ing away in the back­ground is the re­al­ity that the sit­u­a­tion is only get­ting worse.

Bak­ing in fu­ture cli­mate change pro­jec­tions, First Street’s model an­tic­i­pates rapid growth in the num­ber of at-risk prop­er­ties in coastal cities, par­tic­u­larly along the Gulf Coast.

This year, First Street’s model shows about 48,000 prop­er­ties in New Or­leans are within the 100-year flood zone, or a lit­tle less than one-third of the city. By 2050, nearly 100,000 more will be added to the list, or 98% of the city.

FEMA does have a Haz­ardous Mit­i­ga­tion Grant Pro­gram that buys out atrisk homes and re­lo­cates res­i­dents to higher ground. Siders said the pro­gram has pur­chased about 45,000 homes since first es­tab­lished in 1989. Although the num­ber may seem large, it only amounts to about 30 homes per state per year.

Mean­while, new de­vel­op­ment within flood­plains con­tin­ues in many com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try.

“We can’t fig­ure how we’re go­ing to pay for the homes that are al­ready at risk, and now we’re adding more, and we’re adding more by the thou­sands,” Siders said. “That means we’re putting thou­sands of more fam­i­lies at risk, with no plan for how we’re go­ing to pay to help them get out in the fu­ture.”


First Street’s model shows 48,000 prop­er­ties in New Or­leans are in 100-year flood zones. By 2050, largely be­cause of cli­mate change, 100,000 more will be added, or about 98% of the city.

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