A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) flood hazard maps didn’t reflect the best available climate science or include information on current flood hazards.
Flooding is the costliest natural disaster annually in the United States, causing over $155 billion in property damages in the last decade, according to FEMA data. Disaster costs are projected to increase as some extreme weather events become more frequent and intense due to climate change, as observed and projected by the U.S. Global Change Research Program and the National Research Council.
FEMA maps flood hazard areas to help guide the National Flood Insurance Program and the flood mitigation efforts of property owners, community planners, insurers, and others.
GAO found that FEMA’s Risk Mapping, Assessment, and Planning (Risk MAP) program has increased its development of flood maps and other flood risk products, but faces challenges ensuring they comprehensively reflect current and future flood hazards. For example, the watchdog found FEMA’s flood risk products do not reflect hazards such as heavy rainfall and the best available climate science. These products include maps—known as Flood Insurance Rate Maps—and nonregulatory flood risk products such as estimates of flood damage in an area.
The watchdog noted that FEMA’s Risk MAP program is addressing some of these challenges, but many may require years to address. GAO’s report says that Risk MAP has been “operating under an out-of-date plan that does not reflect new goals, objectives, activities, performance measures, and associated timeframes”, and that “updating its program plan to include these elements could help FEMA effectively manage and coordinate its efforts to incorporate current and future flood hazards in a timely way”.
According to GAO, FEMA does not periodically assess the usefulness of its nonregulatory flood risk products, which are intended to help communities increase their resilience to floods. FEMA has invested millions of dollars in developing Risk MAP nonregulatory products; however, GAO found that the agency has not assessed the usefulness of these products in increasing community resilience since 2016.
FEMA prioritizes mapping projects with input from all levels of government and FEMA regional offices, but GAO says it could better use available data to inform its mapping efforts.
“FEMA’s decision-making process has emphasized directing resources to areas with greatest flood risks,” the GAO report states. “Additionally, in 2020, FEMA established a strategic priority for considering socially-vulnerable populations as part of disaster resilience.”
According to GAO’s statistical analyses of data from the Risk MAP program and FEMA’s publicly available disaster risk assessment tools, FEMA’s mapping investments for fiscal years 2012 to 2020 were greater where flood risks were higher, but were lower for areas of higher socially-vulnerable populations.
GAO has recommended that FEMA updates its Risk MAP program plan to identify goals, time frames, and other elements related to its efforts to reflect current and future flood hazards; develop mechanisms to assess the usefulness of its nonregulatory flood risk products; and consider ways to leverage its flood risk data to help prioritize its mapping investment decisions.
The Department of Homeland Security concurred with the recommendations and said FEMA will update its “Risk MAP Multi-Year Plan” by December 30, 2022. In addition, FEMA will clarify its approach for routinely assessing the usefulness of its nonregulatory flood risk data and products by the same date. And to address the third recommendation, FEMA is currently investigating different datasets to assist with its annual flood mapping investment process.