Electronic mapping to aid flood management

FEMA: Flood Hazard Mapping

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"Reinventing FEMA"

The Federal Emergency Management Agency plans to release a request for proposals next month to modernize its floodplain map program, making it easier for individuals and communities to mitigate the effects of disasters.

FEMA developed a plan in 1997 to overhaul its mapmaking methods, moving from manual to automated processes. Today, only a small percentage of its flood maps rely on digital and geographic information system (GIS) technology, which provides detailed, multilayered, visual data of man-made and natural features at specific locations. The agency is set to increase that percentage.

"We're ready to go," said Scott McAfee, FEMA's GIS coordinator. "All the work we've been doing has prepared us to begin cranking out modernized maps."

A floodplain is low-level land next to a river, lake or ocean that is susceptible to flooding. Federal, state and local officials use FEMA maps to manage floodplains, while homeowners and insurance companies use them to gauge the risk to buildings.

Since 1968, the agency has published 100,000 map panels, or 25-square-mile snapshots of floodplains, for some 19,000 communities. Taken together, the inventory paints a national picture of places likely to flood.

The stakes are high. From wrecking homes and businesses to washing away cars to overflowing sewage treatment plants, floods cause massive destruction.

Most of FEMA's inventory was developed by hand and is at least 10 years old. The scribing process doesn't allow for easy updating, and some flood-prone areas have never been mapped. The agency has scanned the paper versions and made them available online, but there is a push to digitize the maps.

When Hurricane Floyd hit North Carolina in 1999, causing death and property damage, state officials were dismayed by the age of some flood maps.

They believed some of the damage "could have been avoided if some of the maps were more current," said Tim Johnson, acting director of North Carolina's Center for Geographic Information and Analysis.

So the state took action, becoming one of FEMA's technical partners. It began flying light detection and ranging sensors to gather data on the land below and constructed a GIS database to house the information.

"We're kind of blazing the trail," said Johnson, who works with North Carolina's floodplain mapping program.

FEMA officials hope others will follow. The agency's modernization plan is ambitious. It includes updating floodplain data, providing maps and data in digital format, integrating state and local partners, and improving mapmaking processes and customer service.

"We're looking to convert to digital format and to maintain a level of currency we don't currently have," McAfee said.

Already, 15 to 30 modernized maps are in the final stages, he said. As the number increases, officials anticipate benefits such as easier data maintenance , more coverage and lower costs.

"By digitizing and having it in electronic format, everybody gets the most immediate, updated data," said Sabby Nayar, strategic industry manager for government at MapInfo Corp. They also "get flexibility. Trying to get paper maps into the field is highly impractical."

Eventually, FEMA officials want to offer a service that enables people to build their own applications.

Still, it has yet to receive enough money to fully overhaul the map inventory, according to the agency's Web site. The Bush administration asked for $350 million for the program as part of its budget request for fiscal 2003. Like most civilian agencies, however, FEMA awaits funding from Congress.

Further, as one of 22 organizations going into the new Homeland Security Department, FEMA's information technology initiatives will be weighed against those at other agencies.

"This is a program that would fit within the needs of homeland security," said Mike Howard, the agency's special adviser on acquisition and policy.

With that in mind, FEMA officials are proceeding. Last fall, they finished specifications for partners to use to create maps with digital and GIS technology. Now, they're working out the details of the RFP, which will focus on program management, Howard said. The agency has three contractors making maps.

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