Who is at risk of becoming a flood victim? Chances are, the answer is not necessarily mapped out by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA created designated maps that are supposed to indicate which homes are at risk of being subjected to flooding, and to what degree. These maps, in theory, are based off a variety of factors, such as geography and weather patterns. This information plays an integral role in community planning and code establishment. In order to determine who must be subject to compulsory flood insurance—or even advise those of minor risk—FEMA’s tools are used. Unfortunately, the important decision of whether or not to buy flood insurance is being based on information that is not entirely accurate. Due to a variety of factors, there are other resources that you should consult before you draw a conclusion about if you need insurance, and how much.
To start, these maps are not up to date. Weather patterns hardly exist statically in a vacuum. Rising sea levels have been linked to an increase in high tide flooding, which occurs even in the absence of a storm. As a result, areas of Florida and New Jersey, which are currently unmarked as high risk, have become just that. Some experts also argue that the frequency and severity of storms can be linked to global warming as warmer sea temperatures react more violently with cool air. Areas of the East and Gulf Coasts are, thus, experiencing precedent-breaking flooding. FEMA fails to take current trends into account.
Regardless of your stance on global warming, overdevelopment is a trend that cannot be denied. Of course, with overdevelopment comes sudden shifts in the natural landscape. While Houston had experienced hurricanes prior to Harvey, the extensive damage we saw in 2017 is being linked to the unchecked, exponential growth of the city into sprawling suburbs. As a result, the metropolitan area has had a significant population hike, which also means that there are more footprints of environmental impact being cast down. Yet, only a fraction of these newly flood-prone areas made it onto FEMA’s maps prior to the storm. Still they remain missing. While New York has been the victim of both rising sea levels and over-development, FEMA maps did not reflect as such until a comprehensive program was executed after Sandy. Unfortunately, acting after the fact does not help those whose homes were already unexpectedly flooding. Further, at this time, the New York area is the only section of the maps which have been updated.
Further troubling is the influence that public officials are allowed in the development of these maps. While you would think that the opposite scenario would be the case, mitigating the scope of designated flood-prone areas behooves powerful community members. With fewer high-risk areas comes greater carte blanche to plan and build a community in a way that’s financially beneficially to the elite. While wealthier residents may even pay off experts to appeal flood-prone status under FEMA, lower-income residents in newly-developed areas may acquire a piece of property that’s later labelled a high-risk area, which drives down property value. While it is a good thing that these residents would then buy flood insurance, if maps are going to be updated, it must be done without disproportionately burdening underserved communities.
So, due to shifting weather patterns, poor urban planning, and socio-political chicanery, the answer to ‘who is a flood victim?’ is not cut and dry in the eyes of FEMA. However, if recent years are any indication, a flood victim can be nearly anyone. Property casualty attorneys are working with flood victims right now who are living in the underbelly of these realities. Whether you are hoping to understand your home’s risk or the National Flood Insurance Program, there are experienced professionals out there who can help you as FEMA’s flood maps remain unreliable.