Unfinished FEMA Maps Put Flood Victims In Limbo

UNITED STATES

Unfinished FEMA Maps Put Flood Victims In Limbo

Superstorm Sandy pummeled the East Coast six months ago, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was there, finding people temporary shelter and supporting rebuilding efforts.

FEMA also has another role. It oversees the creation of flood maps, which model the risk of flooding in different areas during storms. These maps are used to set building codes and flood insurance rates. In New York and New Jersey, FEMA is updating those maps, and so far many homeowners don’t like what they are seeing.

Hurricane Sandy devastated New York and New Jersey in October 2012. Here, a wave crashes into a walking path near the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in Brooklyn. Photograph by Henry Zhang

Hurricane Sandy devastated New York and New Jersey in October 2012. Here, a wave crashes into a walking path near the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in Brooklyn.
Photograph by Henry Zhang

Discussion Ideas:

  • Landowners forced to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy are wary about new flood maps being drawn by FEMA. These maps determine flood insurance rates. Some rates may rise by $10,000. Are students familiar with what flood insurance is?
    • Flood insurance financially protects (insures) landowners if their property is damaged by a flood. Homeowners, renters, and business-owners can purchase flood insurance on a yearly basis. If there is no flood that year, the insurance company keeps the money, called a premium. If a flood damages the property of a person who has purchased flood insurance, the insurance company pays to replace the value of the damaged property. This can mean the cost of rebuilding, remodeling, or simply compensating for the financial loss. Flood insurance often has tiers of coverage: The more a person pays as a premium, the greater the coverage in the event of a flood.
    • In some areas (mostly near the coast) landowners are required to have flood insurance. In addition to insurance companies, the National Flood Insurance Program allows property owners in some areas to purchase flood insurance from the federal government.
  • One factor that drives up flood insurance premiums is whether FEMA designates an area a Velocity zone (V-zone) or an At-Risk zone (A-zone). V-zones and A-zones are the most hazardous flood zones, and landowners in both zones are required to have flood insurance. Zones are evaluated based on modeling around a “hundred-year flood.” Can students explain what a “hundred-year flood” is? If Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, do students think landowners won’t be faced with another flood of that magnitude until around 2112?
  • Have students read the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes article on flood zones and the requirements for each. Can students guess what zone their home or school falls in? How did they make this prediction?
    • Students should evaluate their home or school’s elevation and proximity to rivers, lakes, or the ocean.
  • See if they guessed right! Have students consult FEMA’s flood maps to determine the zone of their school or home. They will need to know their state and county. Many counties are sub-divided by communities and neighborhoods.
  • Read through our activity Location, Location: Coastal Living. Using the population density layer on our MapMaker Interactive and a downloadable worksheet, the activity encourages students to evaluate the pros and cons of living near the ocean. How would students evaluate the pros and cons of buying or building a home in a flood-prone coastal area of New York or New Jersey? What factors would they consider? (Use the worksheet!) Would they make a distinction between a V-zone or A-zone home? How strongly would the expense of mandatory flood insurance influence their decision to buy or build?
  • Some landowners profiled in the NPR article are waiting for the new FEMA maps before finishing (or even starting) the massive rebuilding projects. If one man’s home is reclassified as being in a V-zone, the cost of repair will increase by $100,000. (That’s in addition to his higher insurance premium.) However, if he invests in the repair, he is safer and more financially prepared for the next 100-year flood. If they were devastated landowners, would students wait for the next FEMA maps to come out, or would they start the rebuilding process immediately? Keep in mind, there are no easy (or right) answers here.
    • Would their decision change if they were rebuilding their own homes or those of renters?
    • Would their decision change if they owned a business on their land, but not a home? If someone else owned a business on their land and paid rent?
    • What if they could not afford the potential new increased rebuilding rate? Would they try to take out a loan to rebuild? Would they move? If they moved, would they sell the property or rent it out? What if they could not afford to move?

Thank you to Karen Gibbs for the heads-up on this current-event connection!

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