Environment
4:00 pm
Thu August 8, 2013

ProPublica: FEMA Flood Maps Fraught with Error

A new FEMA flood map of Burnet County, Texas has mistakenly placed the house marked 501 shown here in a high-risk flood area.
Credit Burnet County Environmental Services Department via ProPublica

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has issued new preliminary flood maps.

Louisiana’s delegation in Washington, D.C. is griping over FEMA’s disregard of local flood protection measures when it drew them.

Meanwhile, unless Congress succeeds in passing a delay, federal flood insurance rates are set to go up dramatically as soon as October. Many in Louisiana are facing increases of 20 percent or more.

And, as ProPublica reporter Theo Meyer has found, some may end up paying for insurance they don’t need.

Read the ProPublica article: Using Outdated Data, FEMA Is Wrongly Placing Homeowners in Flood Zones

Share your story: Tell ProPublica About Flood Map Problems Where You Live

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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFRIES: To add insult to injury, the new flood maps that all of the insurance rates are based on are fraught with error.

Theo Meyer, you've been covering this for ProPublica. Tell me about what you've found.

MEYER: By FEMA's own admission, many of the flood maps that dictate the premiums homeowners pay for flood insurance are woefully out of date.

There's a couple problems with that. Older maps don't really reflect how the land may have changed due to erosion or new development. And they're also typically much less accurate. New technologies, such as lidar, can be 10 times as accurate in mapping the contours of the land.

JEFFRIES: These mapping errors have basically put properties in high-risk zones -- saying they're at high risk for flooding -- that don't belong in those areas.

MEYER: Yes.

JEFFRIES: So tell me a little bit about how you found these errors.

MEYER: I had started looking into this after I saw a report in North Dakota that the new maps there were being made with old data. I thought that was sort of strange.

So I looked into it, and it turns out it's something that's happened in many places across the country from Oregon, to North Dakota, to Maine, to Texas, to Louisiana. That new maps had been built using either partially or wholly -- almost wholly -- out of old, outdated data.

JEFFRIES: You did even talk to one official in Livingston Parish who was telling you about how cobbled together the maps were here.

MEYER: Yes, I did.

In Livingston Parish, FEMA included new elevation data using this new technology lidar that was very up-to-date, according to an engineer I spoke to. But FEMA hasn't matched up the new data with the old benchmarks properly, according to this engineer, which makes homes in the parish seem lower than they really are on flood maps.

He told me it was going to be a nightmare for residents there.

JEFFRIES: And I'm going to guess that most people that you've talked to don't really have the wherewithal to go and get these errors corrected.

MEYER: The onus of fighting it is all on them.

You have to hire a surveyor, which can cost anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars to come out and look at your property. You have to file this paperwork to FEMA. And even if FEMA takes you out of the high-risk flood zone -- where people with mortgages are required to buy flood insurance -- even if FEMA takes you out, you still have that sunk cost of paying the surveyor. FEMA's not going to pay you back for that.

JEFFRIES: How are homeowners in general finding out that their property is mapped wrong?

MEYER: There's a few ways.

I talked to people who found out from their neighbors, people who found out when they went to get a mortgage, or to refinance their mortgage -- because it's incumbent on the banks to enforce this law. But virtually everyone I spoke to did not find out from FEMA themselves, which is a little concerning in itself.

JEFFRIES: As you're saying, FEMA thinks their maps are fine, so you're not going to figure it out from them. So, how are going about determining the scope of this problem?

MEYER: It's difficult.

We have issued a call-out at ProPublica. We have a form online where people who have experienced problems with the maps can go to our website, ProPublica.org, and fill it out and tell us. So, that's one way of doing it.