Report Finds FEMA Is Massively Undercounting Flood Risks

Illustration for article titled Report Finds FEMA Is Massively Undercounting Flood Risks
Photo: Scott Olson (Getty Images)

Right now, we’re living through a timeline where everything from unemployment rates to death tolls appear to be much more grim than authorities let on. So it’s somehow both deeply horrifying and deeply unsurprising that, while states across the country are facing unprecedented floods with disastrous long-term impacts, the federal flood maps that homeowners, developers and city planners rely on to asses their flood risks are, evidently, discounting millions of properties across the U.S.

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That’s according to a new analysis by the First Street Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit that released its own countrywide flood maps earlier today. By taking into account factors typically discounted by FEMA, like future climate change or smaller creeks currently undocumented in the federal registrar, the research team found more than 14 million properties substantially at risk across the nation—a far cry higher than the 8.7 million FEMA’s figures currently project.

The “flood factor” for each respective city was tallied using federally available geographic information like elevation and rainfall data, along with each city’s respective proximity to a coast. Whenever possible, this data was validated against historic flood reports or federal flood claims. This data, in turn, was applied to 142 million properties across the contiguous 48 states.

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The result, as pointed out by the New York Times’ own maps of the project, is that federal data for cities stretching from West Virginia to Oregon are being woefully misrepresented. In some cases, like in Johnson County, Wyoming, the disparity is small: 537 properties instead of the 91 that FEMA had previously calculated. In others, it’s more stark: The counts differ by roughly 76,000 properties in Chicago, 44,000 in New York City, and 20,000 in Detroit. The First Street team has created a handy website for folks who want to check their own address.

As we’ve seen time and time and time again, the communities set to face the brunt of this ecological threat also tend to largely be communities of color. As one source pointed out to the Times, Black households tend to face a higher flood risk overall because their homes are “often built on cheaper land in historically segregated areas.” And while we’ve long known that these communities regularly face environmental hazards like polluted air or contaminated water, their increased risk for flooding has, evidently, slipped under FEMA’s radar.

Here’s an example that the Times pointed out: Combing through the First Street dataset shows that in the South Side neighborhood of Englewood, Chicago—a neighborhood that’s almost entirely Black—close to a third of households are in what’s called the “100-year floodplain,” a term used to describe a “high-risk” area susceptible to a flood with a 1% chance of occurring in a given year. FEMA’s own records don’t account for those households at all.

Unlike people, climate doesn’t discriminate. Floodwaters are equally likely to ruin someone’s home, school, or grocery store depending on what’s in the line of fire. That means when FEMA downplays the risks risks these communities face, isn’t just complicit in exposing them to property damage they probably can’t afford—it’s also complicit in making their schools more dangerous, their hospitals more overcrowded, and their lives far shorter than they probably have any right to be.

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In a sense, this is by design: Local politicians—particularly those in wealthier communities—hold a lot of influence over exactly how FEMA’s maps are shaped year after year. And even though FEMA is supposed to be neutral on paper, the truth is that it’s too cash-strapped to afford not to be swayed by these influences. Without those finances, that political will, or any noticeable backbone on FEMA’s part, the only possible outcome is more Black and brown people being put in harm’s way, and more stories of state governments sweeping their stories under the rug—the same way they always have.

I cover the business of data for Gizmodo. Send your worst tips to swodinsky@gizmodo.com.

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DISCUSSION

shadowpryde
ShadowPryde

Eh, yeah and no. I mean the FEMA flood maps serve a specific purpose, which is to note who does and doesn’t qualify for the Federal Flood Insurance. They’re not supposed to be a holistic interpretation of who will and who won’t be flooded. They’ve got a cut-off, which is roughly delineated by the 100 year flood plain. You have to draw the boundary somewhere if you’re not going to insure everyone fully.  And because of that insurance program, FEMA’s methodology is evolving slowly to incorporate some of the changes (like elevation) mentioned.  Just getting elevation data is expensive as hell and takes time.