Removing people and homes from flood-prone areas can save lives and help communities save money on disaster response. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides funding for communities to buy flood-prone properties from willing owners and convert them to open space.
Such property acquisition can be a beneficial strategy for flood mitigation. Property acquisition permanently eliminates structures at risk of flooding and can lower disaster response costs. Property acquisition can also reduce the federal flood insurance program’s fiscal exposure—that is, financial risk to the government.
However, a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report says the acquisition process is lengthy and complex—discouraging some communities and property owners from participating. Many stakeholders GAO interviewed said the length of the acquisition process could lead homeowners to refuse to participate or to drop out of projects over time. Also, GAO said local governments may lack staff and expertise to manage the complex process, and states may have limited capacity to help them conduct acquisitions. Financial considerations, such as difficulty funding the nonfederal share of project costs, can also pose challenges.
FEMA has taken or is considering actions to address some challenges. For example, to ease applications for communities, FEMA is developing a uniform application form for acquisition projects.
GAO identified options for improving acquisitions that could help address acquisition challenges. For example, FEMA could preapprove properties for acquisition by reviewing their eligibility before a community submits a grant application, which many stakeholders said could expedite applications after a flood. However, some stakeholders told GAO that some eligibility requirements—such as the cost-effectiveness of acquiring properties—could be difficult to preapprove. FEMA officials said the agency has been considering actions related to some of these options but has not fully implemented any of them. They also said the agency would need additional authority to implement some options, including the one to preapprove properties for acquisition.
As a result of its review, GAO wants Congress to consider providing FEMA direction or authority to implement one or more of the options to address property acquisition challenges. The government watchdog is also making four recommendations to FEMA, including that it evaluate the options and determine whether to pursue implementation of any of them. The Department of Homeland Security agreed with the recommendations.