How accurate are federal flood maps? - WALB.com, Albany News, Weather, Sports

How accurate are federal flood maps?

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August 3, 2006
by Brian Mooar

Anne Arundel county, Maryland  -- Nearly a year after hurricane Katrina , the federal government is scrambling to prepare for the next big disaster.  

But officials acknowledge they're years behind in one key area -- updating flood plain maps. The maps make it clear where it's safe to build -- and where it isn't -- and who's most vulnerable to flooding that can wipe out lives and livelihoods.    

"On a hundred year flood, all these areas in the dark gray would be affected," says county land official Betty Dixon. She's referring to federal flood insurance maps for Anne Arundel County, Maryland.  The government's official word on where it's safe to build homes and live. They haven't been updated in two decades.

"It's something that we do use and it's something that does guide the building code," said Dixon.   The government admits many of its flood maps are outdated ,  as FEMA struggles through a five-year, five billion dollar digital upgrade.   

National Flood Insurance Program Administrator David Maurstad says, "We're about half way through this process, about 40% of the nations population have new digital flood maps."   

Maurstad says lessons learned from hurricane Katrina are helping the government work better with communities before and after disasters to make homes a little more flood proof.

But with so many outdated flood maps, critics claim residents are still building in areas prone to flooding.    Bob Hunter of the Consumer Federation of America said,  "If the maps are wrong, the homes are being built unsafely. And in fact taxpayers are subsidizing it."   

Hunter says longtime problems haven't been fixed because of political pressure. "Developers and realtors have always pressed hard against the program because it's cheaper to build houses poorly."   

And he has this message for FEMA: "Come on guys. Get tougher! Katrina is a wakeup call. Your program isn't working."   

Meanwhile, Congress continues to talk about tightening the rules, while communities continue to build, and rebuild, on what might be shaky ground.     

for more information on the nation flood insurance program, go to:  www.floodsmart.gov