GAO: Use tech to find flood figures

FEMA urged to use mapping technologies to determine how many buildings are in flood hazard areas

The Federal Emergency Management Agency should use mapping technologies to find out how many buildings reside in flood-prone areas, according to General Accounting Office testimony submitted Wednesday.

FEMA could better assess how well its National Flood Insurance Program is performing if it kept accurate records on the number of structures that are located in the program's special flood hazard areas, said JayEtta Hecker, GAO's physical infrastructure issues director, in testimony submitted to the Senate Appropriations Committee's Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development and Independent Agencies Subcommittee.

FEMA keeps track of the number of insurance policies in hazard areas, but it doesn't have solid data on the overall number of structures in those areas, which prevents the agency from knowing what percentage of at-risk buildings carry flood insurance policies.

Mapping technologies could help FEMA determine the number of structures in hazard areas, Hecker said.

"These technologies can be used not only to show buildings and houses on maps but also to pinpoint the exact location of such structures," she said. "Combining these technologies with the digital flood maps that FEMA is already producing would allow for increased accuracy in the identification of structures within [flood hazard areas] and the calculation of participation rates."

For example, FEMA should continue to use U.S. Geological Survey digital orthophoto quadrangles — aerial photographs corrected for use as a map — to pinpoint structures in hazard areas and make them identifiable in a geographic information system (GIS) database.

There was bipartisan derision for the NFIP at the hearing, at which FEMA Director Joe Allbaugh testified. Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.), the subcommittee's chairman, called the program a management "failure." Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the ranking member, questioned why FEMA has not been able to update its flood maps, which are used to determine flood hazard areas and insurance rates.

Allbaugh said a lack of funding was a major impediment to developing updated maps, of which two-thirds are more than 10 years old. FEMA estimates that it will cost close to $1 billion to update the maps and digitize them over seven years, he said.

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