Flood risks across USA worse than many think
Model finds 40% undercount in FEMA flood list
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.