FEMA maps need flood of money

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has tens of thousands of outdated flood plain maps that it would like to update, digitize and make interactive, and its modernization plan has strong support among map users. What it lacks is the money to do it.

Map modernization using digital techniques will cost about $775 million over seven years, said FEMA spokeswoman Mary Margaret Walker. However, in fiscal 2001, Congress authorized FEMA to use only up to $15 million of the $300 million disaster-relief fund for map modernization.

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 located. The maps help determine which structures must carry flood insurance and help 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 report issued late last year.

"Updated maps are absolutely critical so communities and individuals will know what their risk is," Walker said.

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 only on paper, and a third of them are more than 15 years old, with nearly another third between 10 and 15 years old, he said.

The maps are so out of date that an entire flood-determination industry has sprung up to help lending institutions decide if a structure needs to carry flood insurance. FEMA had proposed that a fee earmarked for map modernization be added to the $15 to $30 cost that consultants charge lending institutions, Buckley said. Congress opposed the fee beacuse it would likely be passed to individual property owners, he said.

Using outdated maps results in some homeowners not having flood insurance when they should and some having it who do not need it, said Peggy Bowker, who represented the National Flood Determination Association on the Technical Mapping Advisory Council.

"The amount of money needed 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."

The FEMA Flood Map Store, a new online ordering service which is 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 downloading or on CD-ROMs, Buckley said.

Digitizing will enable the agency to have a map print-on-demand capability, Buckley said, which would eliminate the cost of storing 20 million copies of maps at a facility near Baltimore.

Bowker said Congress recognizes the need for updated maps, but because FEMA is such a small agency, it is easily overlooked. She said FEMA needs a congressional leader to step in and move map modernization forward.

"For the price of one little piece of the Pentagon budget, we could remap the whole country," Bowker said. "I think there needs to be a champion up there to say, "Yes, we need better maps.' "

Map modernization is on Congress' radar screen. Two senators brought the subject up during new FEMA Director Joe Allbaugh's confirmation hearing last month, and Allbaugh said map modernization will be a high priority.

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