Using outdated data, FEMA is wrongly placing homeowners in flood zones

Homeowners in the US have to bear the cost of fixing the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA's mistakes

When Donna Edgar found out that new flood maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would place her house in a high-risk flood zone, she couldn’t believe it.

Her home, on the ranch she and her husband own in Texas hill country about 60 miles north of Austin, sits well back from the nearby Lampasas River.

“Her house is on a hill,” said Herb Darling, the director of environmental services for Burnet County, where Edgar lives. “There’s no way it’s going to flood.”

Yet the maps, released last year, placed the Edgars in what FEMA calls a “special flood hazard area.” Homeowners in such areas are often required, and always encouraged, to buy federal flood insurance, which the Edgars did.

FEMA eventually admitted the maps were wrong. But it took Edgar half a dozen engineers (many of whom volunteered their time), almost $1,000 of her own money and what she called an “ungodly number of hours” of research and phone calls over the course of a year to prove it.

Edgars is far from alone.

From Maine to Oregon, local floodplain managers say FEMA’s recent flood maps — which dictate the premiums that 5.5 million Americans pay for flood insurance — have often been built using outdated, inaccurate data. Homeowners, in turn, have to bear the cost of fixing FEMA’s mistakes.

“It’s been a mess,” Darling said. “It’s been a headache for a lot of people.”

Joseph Young, Maine’s floodplain mapping coordinator, said his office gets calls “almost on a daily basis” from homeowners who say they’ve been mapped in high-risk flood areas in error. More often than not, he said, their complaints have merit. “There’s a lot of people who have a new map that’s unreliable,” he said.

Maps built with out-of-date data can also result in homeowners at risk of flooding not knowing the threat they face.

FEMA is currently finalizing new maps for Fargo, N.D., yet the maps don’t include any recent flood data, said April Walker, the city engineer, including from when the Red River overran its banks in 1997, 2009 and 2011. Those floods were the worst in Fargo’s history.

Fargo has more recent data, Walker said, but FEMA hasn’t incorporated it.

It’s unclear exactly how many new maps FEMA has issued in recent years are at least partly based on older data. While FEMA’s website allows anybody to look-up flood maps for their areas, the agency’s maps don’t show the age of the underlying data.

FEMA’s director of risk analysis, Doug Bellomo, said it was “very rare” for the agency to digitize the old paper flood maps without updating some of the data. “We really don’t go down the road” of simply digitizing old maps, he said.

FEMA did not respond to questions about the maps for Fargo or other specific areas.

State and local floodplain officials pointed to examples where FEMA had issued new maps based at least in part on outdated data. The reason, they said, wasn’t complicated.

“Not enough funding, pure and simple,” Young said.

Using new technology, FEMA today is able to gather far more accurate elevation data than it could in the 1970s and 1980s, when most of the old flood maps were made. Lidar, in which airplanes map terrain by firing laser pulses at the ground, can provide data that’s 10 times more accurate than the old methods.

Lidar is also expensive. Yet as we’ve reported, Congress, with the support of the White House, has actually cut map funding by more than half since 2010, from $221 million down to $100 million this year.

With limited funding, FEMA has concentrated on updating maps for the populated areas along the coasts. In rural areas, “it’s sort of a necessary evil to reissue maps with older data on them,” said Sally McConkey, an engineer with the Illinois State Water Survey at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which has a contract with FEMA to produce flood maps in the state.

When old maps are digitized, mapmakers try to match up road intersections visible on them with the ones seen in modern satellite imagery (similar to what you can see using Google Earth). But the old maps and the new imagery don’t always line up correctly, leading to what Alan R. Lulloff, the science services program director with the Association of State Floodplain Managers, called a “warping” effect.

“It can show areas that are actually on high ground as being in the flood hazard area when they’re not,” he said. “That’s the biggest problem.”

When FEMA issued new maps last year for Livingston Parish in Louisiana, near Baton Rouge, they included new elevation data. But the flood studies, said Eddie Aydell III, the chief engineer with Alvin Fairburn in Denham Springs, La., who examined the maps, were “a conglomeration of many different ancient engineering studies” dating from the 1980s to 2001. The mapmakers did not match up the new elevation data with the older data correctly, he said, making structures in the parish seem lower than they really are.

“It’s going to be a nightmare for the residents of our parish,” he said.

Bonnie Marston’s parents, Jim and Glynda Childs, moved to Andover, Maine, where Marston lives with her husband, in 2010 with the intention of building a house. But when they applied for a loan the bank told them that FEMA’s new flood maps for the county, issued the year before, had placed the land on which they planned to build in a special flood hazard area. The cost: a $3,200 annual flood insurance bill, which the Childs had to pay upfront.

Marston spent about $1,400 to hire a surveyor, who concluded her parents did not belong in a special flood hazard area. FEMA eventually removed the requirement for them to buy flood insurance — though it didn’t actually update the map. The bank refunded the flood insurance premium, but Marston said FEMA wouldn’t refund the cost of the survey.

“In my mind it’s a huge rip-off,” Marston said.

Edgar, 68, a retired IBM software developer, said she couldn’t understand why FEMA thought her house was suddenly at risk of flooding. When she called FEMA and asked, she said the agency couldn’t tell her.

“They just said, ‘You need to buy flood insurance,’” she said, and told her she could apply for what’s known as a letter of map amendment if she thought she’d been mapped into a special flood hazard area in error. She worried that being in a high-risk flood area would diminish the value of her home.

Her husband, Thomas, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, knew David R. Maidment, a civil engineering professor there who is an expert on flood insurance mapping. While she hired a surveyor and wrangled with FEMA, Maidment and several of his Ph.D. students drove up to the ranch to study it as a class project.

The experience, Maidment said, showed him “in a very small microcosm” the importance of using up-to-date elevation data in new maps. The Texas state government paid to map Burnet County, where the Edgars’ ranch is located, in 2011 using lidar. But FEMA’s new maps for the county don’t include the lidar data.

FEMA removed the Edgars from the special flood hazard area in March, but again it hasn’t actually changed the maps. Letters of map amendment acknowledge that FEMA’s maps were incorrect without actually changing them. While the Edgars don’t have to buy flood insurance, the new, inaccurate maps remain.

Darling, the county’s director of environmental services, said he had gotten calls from dozens of homeowners with similar complaints about the new flood maps.

“We’ve still got ‘em coming in,” he said.

The contractor that created the new maps appeared to have taken shortcuts in drawing them, Darling said. Without new lidar data, he added, issuing a new map is “just a waste of money.”

The experience, Edgar said, had left her feeling deeply frustrated, as a both homeowner and a taxpayer. FEMA hasn’t reimbursed her for the surveying costs or for the flood insurance premium she and her husband paid. “It falls to the homeowner to hire a professional engineer and pay” hundreds, even thousands, “to disprove what I would call their shoddy work,” she said. “I don’t think that’s fair.”




nagesh kini

3 years ago

Even the Yankees can goof!
In Mumbai you'd find the high and distant Malabar Hill in the High Risk Flood Zone.
Thank God our BMC and Disaster Mgmt. Authorities still work on British era manual mapping, many of which 'go missing' as the Mumbai Mun. Com. found recently after the Mahim Altaf Mansion crash, even Taj Hotel plans are not traceable!

Sensex, Nifty trending higher: Thursday closing report

As long as Nifty manages to stay above the 5,995 we may see the up move continuing

The Sensex and the Nifty closed at its highest level since 30 May 2013. Yesterday we had mentioned that the Nifty has to close above 6,015 for a strong up move. Today the index managed to cross this level towards the end of the trading session and closed at its high level for the day. The NSE saw a volume of 58.92 crore shares.


The Sensex opened higher at 20,000 while the Nifty too opened higher at 5,985. Both the indices traded in the positive throughout the day. They hit their respective intraday lows in afternoon trade, tracking a weak opening in European market. The Sensex hit a higher low of 19,956 and the Nifty hit a higher low of 5,975. However, both Sensex and Nifty traded higher and towards the end of the session shot up hitting a high of 20,177 and 6,051, respectively. The Sensex closed at 20,128 (up 180 points/0.90%) while the Nifty closed at 6,038 (up 65 points/1.08%).


Among the broader indices, the BSE Mid-cap index rose 0.74% and the BSE Small-cap index rose 0.24%.


All sectoral indices closed in the positive. The top gainers were BSE Realty (up 2.53%); BSE Bankex (up 2.04%); BSE Consumer durables (up 1.72%); BSE PSU (up 1.50%) and BSE Capital Goods (up 1.49%).


Out of the 30 stocks on the Sensex, 23 stocks settled higher. Top gainers were ONGC (up 4.42%); HDFC Bank (up 3.22%); BHEL (up 3.14%); Hindalco Inds (up 2.35%) and Hero MotoCorp (up 2.34%). Top losers were Mahindra & Mahindra (down 1.88%); Sterlite Inds (down 1.73%); NTPC (down 0.95%); TCS (down 0.82%) and Bajaj Auto (down 0.67%).


The top two A Group gainers on the BSE were—Uco Bank (up 14.92%) and Indiabulls Real Estate (up 9.17%).


The top two A Group losers on the BSE were—MMTC (down 4.99%) and Gitanjali Gems (down 4.97%).


The top two B Group gainers on the BSE were—Sunitee Chemicals (up 20%) and Metkore Alloys (up 19.79%).


The top two B Group losers on the BSE were—KBS India (down 19.97%) and Khaitan Chemicals (down 19.82%).


Of the 50 stocks on the Nifty, 41 ended in the in the green. The major gainers were Reliance Infrastructure (up 5.82%); ONGC (up 4.85%); Asian Paints (up 4.18%); Axis Bank (up 4.03%) and Bank of Baroda (up 3.69%). The key losers were HCL Technologies (down 1.75%); Mahindra & Mahindra (down 1.52%); TCS (down 1.19%); UltraTech Cement (down 0.80%) and NTPC (down 0.68%).


The board of directors of Punjab Chemicals & Crop Protection has considered and approved to sell, transfer or dispose its Agro Formulation Division. This division comprises all fixed assets located at Nandesari, Vadodara, Lote Parshuram and Flat at Vadodara to Coromandel Agrico Pvt Ltd by way of slump sale, subject to the approval of the shareholders, regulatory authorities and lenders. And have also approved to sell, convey, transfer, deliver or dispose the business conducted at Pune unit of Industrial Chemicals Division of the company either on a going concern basis or in parts or otherwise, including assets, title, interest and obligations, subject to the approval of the shareholders, regulatory authorities and lenders. The stock fell 15.8% to close at Rs37.05 on the NSE.


Moody's Investors Service said the rupee's depreciation will exacerbate inflationary and fiscal pressures, with both factors potentially constraining the country's sovereign rating. Moody's has a "stable" outlook on India's "Baa3" rating, its lowest investment grade-rating.


Among the Asian indices, Shanghai Composite was the major loser today, which fell 1.05%, after China's Finance Minister Lou Jiwei said the government is unlikely to provide a big fiscal stimulus this year. Nikkei 225 was the top gainer today, rose 1.32%.


US indices closed marginally higher on Wednesday after the Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said the central bank's monthly bond purchases weren't on a "pre-set course" and could be curbed or extended, depending on economic conditions. In prepared testimony to the House Financial Services Committee, Bernanke said that there is no set timetable for slowing US monetary stimulus. The Fed currently buys $85 billion a month in government and mortgage bonds in an effort to stimulate economic growth.


Markets are also watching a meeting in Moscow of G20 finance ministers for signs of an orchestrated approach to the end of US money-printing, which could help resolve volatility in global markets. The G20, which meets on Friday and Saturday, includes many of the developing countries that have been at the sharp end of the dollar's surge since Bernanke first signaled the fed would roll back its bond buying in May.


European indices were trading mostly in the green. The US Futures were also trading higher.


SEC bans Rajat Gupta, asks to pay $13.9 million fine

While banning Gupta from serving as an officer or director of a public company, the SEC asked him to pay $13.9 million penalty

The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has ordered Rajat Gupta, former group director of Goldman Sachs to pay a $13.9 million civil penalty and banned from serving as an officer or director of a public company for having illegally passed corporate secrets to former hedge fund manager Raj Rajaratnam.

Gupta, 64, is appealing his June 2012 conviction and two-year prison term for having provided confidential tips he learned at Goldman board meetings during the second half of 2008 to Rajaratnam, a former billionaire who ran Galleon Group.

The tips included news about Goldman's financial results and a crucial USD 5 billion investment during the financial crisis by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

"The sanctions imposed today send a clear message to board members who are entrusted with protecting the confidences of the companies they serve," George Canellos, co-director of the SEC's enforcement division, said in a statement.

Rajaratnam, serving an 11-year prison term, was the highest-ranking financial executive convicted in a multi-year federal crackdown on insider trading. Gupta is the highest-ranking corporate executive convicted in that probe.

Gupta is a former global managing director of the consulting from McKinsey & Co. He remains free during his appeal.




3 years ago

Its a great verdict.
When will India build such systems here !!. People here get away with murder & here you have a system which dispassionately conducts enquiry,gives a fair trial & convicts the guilty within a stipulated time frame

We are listening!

Solve the equation and enter in the Captcha field.

To continue

Sign Up or Sign In


To continue

Sign Up or Sign In



The Scam
24 Year Of The Scam: The Perennial Bestseller, reads like a Thriller!
Moneylife Magazine
Fiercely independent and pro-consumer information on personal finance
Stockletters in 3 Flavours
Outstanding research that beats mutual funds year after year
MAS: Complete Online Financial Advisory
(Includes Moneylife Magazine and Lion Stockletter)