FEMA mulls offering electronic maps

The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced last month that it is exploring whether to distribute electronic maps showing areas prone to floods so that the public and state and local governments can have quicker access to information before building houses or creating zoning ordinances.

With 80 000 maps covering thousands of communities nationwide FEMA anticipates that moving to electronic maps will reduce its volume of paper-map inventory and save storage space.

But more importantly FEMA hopes the public will access the maps via the Internet or some other medium to determine where they should live and where communities should be built to avoid areas prone to floods.

"The speed with which we envision providing the customers with flood-risk maps is a big part of our program to help people avoid disasters by telling them `Don't build here because this is a high flood-risk area ' or `If you build here build in a manner that you'll be able to survive if a flood does occur ' " said Mark Whitney a geographer at FEMA's mitigation directorate.

Whitney said for the public - including town and county planners insurance companies and bankers - electronic maps are critical to the community-planning process and with increased access to this information the public's awareness will grow.

"Eventually - and this may be several years down the road - people will be able to type in their ZIP code or their street address and a map will come up that will show [the] specific areas and then they will have the option of choosing to display different flood-hazard levels " Whitney said.But for some city and county planners who must work with highly detailed paper maps the electronic maps may be useless.

"Maps on the Internet - [they] won't help me at all " said David Parker the building commissioner for Sullivan County in the northeastern corner of Tennessee. With its abundance of lakes and creeks Sullivan County suffers from floods and it is Parker's duty to enforce the flood regulations which include deterring people from building in a flood plain and enforcing regulations to elevate buildings or develop flood-proof structures in other flood areas.

"For somebody in the banking business or the insurance business who just wants to know whether a specific area is in a flood plain or not it's great for them but here I have to get these paper maps on the desk and use a scale to measure and determine where the 100-year-flood plain is or the 500-year-flood plain and so on " Parker said. "For anyone enforcing the flood regulations the present system is a good one." The 100-year-flood plain is the worst flood that would occur every 100 years.

But Richard Sheets senior staff associate for the Missouri Municipal League believes towns with populations less than 3 000 will benefit from the new technology. "I think it's a good idea because a lot of smaller communities really don't have these maps " he said. "For those small cities who will be able to get their maps on the Internet it will help them out substantially."

FEMA hopes that the electronic maps which will be distributed through its Map Service Center will utilize print-on-demand and computer-to-plate capabilities CD-ROM distribution and production and receipt and distribution of orders via the Internet.

Currently FEMA is soliciting information to determine among other things the availability of commercial technology to meet its scanning print-on-demand and computer-to-plate map-distribution capabilities as well as a proposal to distribute maps through the Internet.

FEMA anticipates a full and open competition procurement of the technology needed to implement the agency's plan of action.

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