Report: Upgrading FEMA Flood Maps Would Save Lives, Stem Losses

January 26, 2009

Nearly four years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, researchers called on the federal government to upgrade its flood maps, arguing that the effort could save lives as well as stem losses to properties and businesses.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood insurance rate maps are used to set flood insurance rates, regulate development in flood plains, and let people know about the risk they face.

FEMA is wrapping up a five-year map modernization plan that had led to digital flood maps for 92 percent of the continental U.S. population, the National Research Council said. But even after $1 billion has been spent on the effort, only 21 percent of the population has maps which meet all of FEMA’s data quality standards, said the study, which was requested by FEMA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The report said that FEMA often produces maps from the U.S. Geological Survey National Elevation Dataset, but that more accurate maps are available using lidar, which measures elevation from lasers on aircraft.

Among its recommendations, the report calls on FEMA to increase its collaboration with federal, state and local agencies to acquire high-resolution, high-accuracy topographic data.

“FEMA has recently begun to support collection of lidar data along the Gulf Coast, but lidar data coverage over most inland areas is still sparse,” the report says.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on disaster recovery, called FEMA’s upgrade of its flood maps “welcome, but long overdue.”

“However, even with a modernized plan, FEMA may continue to fail Gulf Coast residents if the agency does not seek input from local residents,” she said in a statement provided to The Associated Press. “An important part of the process is local participation to ensure the maps are accurate and represent the true topography of the land. Knowledge of the local terrain is an essential supplement to the science used to design new flood maps.”

In Louisiana, FEMA’s new maps have triggered complaints from several parishes that the elevation data put too many towns in flood zones — guaranteeing they’ll never rebuild and recover from the hurricanes of 2005 and 2008.

A FEMA spokesman, Butch Kinerney, said the report “validates a lot of the things we’re doing, and have done, and gives us good recommendations for going forward. We’re changing the way we’re looking at maps.”

In addition to upgrading the maps, the agency is also helping communities to write plans to prepare for all sorts of disasters, including floods, he said.

Asked if he agreed that better maps could save lives and property, Kinerney said that a lot depends on how local communities choose to use the improved information.

“If a community adopts it, yeah, I think there are going to be dramatic effects,” he said. “If a community chooses not to adopt it, it could be for naught.”

The National Research Council is part of the National Academies, an independent organization chartered by Congress to advise the government on scientific matters.


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