FEMA map service inches forward

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency has launched a service that enables businesses to purchase flood plain maps via the Internet, but officials say that's only a preliminary step in a plan to fully digitize and upgrade its maps — if funding becomes available.

FEMA's Flood Insurance Rate Maps are used as part of the agency-run National Flood Insurance Program to show where flood hazard areas are. They determine which structures must buy flood insurance and regulate the construction of new buildings in flood-hazard areas.

However, "the information portrayed on them is often not nearly enough to do a good job of either of those primary purposes," said Mark Riebau, who represented the American Society of Civil Engineers on the Technical Mapping Advisory Council, a congressionally created body that recommended map modernization in a final report issued last year.

FEMA has some 100,000 maps covering 20,000 flood-risk communities, said Michael Buckley, technical services director for the agency's Mitigation Directorate. They're available in paper only, and 33 percent of them are more than 15 years old; another 30 percent are 10 to 15 years old, he said.

The new online ordering service, the FEMA Flood Map Store, part of the agency's Map Service Center, will provide a way for businesses to obtain the current maps more conveniently. By this time next year, the agency hopes to have its maps digitized and available for download from the Internet or via CD-ROM, Buckley said.

But the real thrust of map modernization is upgrading the maps themselves using digital techniques. That will require about $775 million over seven years, said FEMA spokeswoman Mary Margaret Walker. Of the the fiscal 2001 disaster relief fund of $300 million, Congress authorized FEMA to use $15 million toward map modernization.

Relying on the out-of-date maps results in some homeowners missing out on flood insurance, said Peggy Bowker, who represented the National Flood Determination Association on the Technical Mapping Advisory Council.

"The amount of money need to fund this program compared to the entire federal budget is peanuts," Bowker said. "With the current level of funding, there's no way FEMA can do it."

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