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Thinking Outside the Flood Plain

At first glance, it appears that Hurricane Katrina's destruction was Wayne Tollett's gain.

He and his family moved to a flood-damaged cottage in Bellefontaine in southern Mobile County, close enough to Mobile Bay to hear the waves gently lapping on the shore. Though Katrina caused 2 feet of flooding inside, Tollett is renovating the house without elevating it and has decided not to buy flood coverage.

"I don't think it ever flooded before," he said. "I don't suppose it will happen again in the next 100 years. If it does, I just hope it takes the whole house."

Despite its proximity to the bay, Tollett's home is outside the federal 100-year flood zone. That means that he doesn't have to elevate his house while rebuilding it and he wouldn't have to buy a flood insurance policy in order to get a mortgage.

Other homeowners in Mobile and Baldwin counties are making similarly optimistic bets, basing them largely on the official flood zones that predict how high water would reach in a 100-year storm.

They're leaving a lot to chance. Federal flood maps in Alabama appear to consistently underestimate flooding from hurricanes and tropical storms, according to research by the Press-Register.

The newspaper's analysis shows that near Tollett's home, hurricane-driven waters have surged beyond the 100-year level at least twice in less than four decades, demolishing the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood predictions and underscoring how unreliable Alabama's flood maps are.

It may seem that such gambles affect only the people who make them. But if a hurricane reduces neighborhoods to concrete slabs and useless staircases, far more people pay.

The federal flood insurance program was set up in 1968 to reduce disaster payments and encourage responsible building by regulating construction in the 100-year flood plain. From the start, it was a compromise between preventing damage and promoting economic growth.

According to Bob Hunter, a former director of the program, taxpayers would bear costs for flood mapping and risk assessment, "in exchange for which there was supposed to be safe building in the future—both new building and rebuilding after storms."

But an October 2006 report concludes that basing regulations on a predicted 100-year storm—in essence, restricting development in areas where there's a 1 percent chance of flooding each year—hasn't accomplished those goals.

"The 1 percent standard, as currently applied, is inadequate," states the report by the American Institutes for Research and the Water Policy Collaborative at the University of Maryland. [A PDF of the report is available for download at http://www.fema.gov/library/viewRecord.do?id=2595.]

Nationwide increase

Every decade, flooding damage has increased nationwide, according to the report, and more and more structures continue to be built in flood-prone areas. The 2005 hurricane season effectively bankrupted the flood insurance program with about $20 billion in payouts, leading members of Congress to say it will have to be bailed out.

The report concludes that the standard based on the 100-year storm has created communities that are barely protected against events of that magnitude, and aren't prepared at all for worse floods that end up damaging property both inside and outside the flood plain.

For instance, many communities are content to build levees only as high as the 100-year flood elevation. Property protected by such levees can be removed from the 100-year flood plain, and thus freed from stricter building codes.

What's more, just as water seeks the path of least resistance, developers often intentionally place their projects just outside the 100-year flood plain to avoid insurance and construction requirements, the report states.

Unfortunately for homeowners like Tollett, being outside the flood plain doesn't put them out of harm's way. Flooding doesn't magically stop at the 100-year boundary, and predicting where that boundary should be drawn is as imprecise as any weather forecast.

In Alabama, those predictions are based on scientific methods and storm data that are decades out of date, Press-Registerresearch has shown.

The net result is that homeowners outside the 100-year flood plain, who aren't required to account for serious flooding when they build, may be more vulnerable to damage than those within the flood plain, who at least had to elevate their homes to some degree.

That vulnerability is showing up in flood insurance payouts. The flood insurance program is covering more losses than should be expected on properties outside the 100-year flood plain—with a third of flood losses now occurring outside the high-risk zone, according to the report.

Owners know it

The authors of the report believe the flood insurance program is seeing those high losses because some of those properties are at higher risk than the maps suggest, and their owners know it. So flood insurance policies outside the 100-year flood plain tend to cover just the higher-risk properties rather than being spread across a range of risks.

It's like having an auto insurance company whose only customers are those who know they're bad drivers.

If the program "instead of discouraging unsafe construction, is encouraging unsafe construction ... it has broken its promise to the taxpayers," Hunter said.

Those problems underscore a tension in flood plain regulation: Local planners have an incentive to allow development, but the federal government, which is on the hook for damages, wants to discourage it, said Gerald Galloway, a University of Maryland professor who was one of the chief authors of the report.

Moreover, people in flood-prone areas have assumed the government would bail them out regardless of whether they were covered.

After Katrina, "You saw all the turmoil in Mississippi and parts of Alabama where people said, 'We didn't know it could flood here,'" Galloway said. "Give me a break."

His report notes some particular problems with coastal development nationwide. Losses in "velocity zones," the areas on open water that suffer from wave damage, are higher than would be expected.

That could mean that coastal planning, engineering and construction practices are not rising to meet the 1 percent risk standard, the report states.

It also could indicate that the 1 percent predictions are too low, as suggested by the Press-Register's research.

FEMA's southeast and south central regions, which includes the Lower Atlantic and the entire Gulf Coast, account for about three-quarters of repetitive losses nationwide, meaning the program has had to cover flood damage to the same properties more than once.

And in Alabama, eight of the top 10 repetitive loss communities are on the coast: Gulf Shores, Dauphin Island, Mobile, Baldwin County, Mobile County, Orange Beach, Bayou La Batre and Fairhope.


Among other things, the report recommends:

  • Insurance should be required for all properties within the 500-year flood plain. That flood plain is more expansive than the 100-year plain and is predicted to flood, on average, once every 500 years.
  • Local and state governments must take a more aggressive role in managing development within the flood plain by imposing more stringent regulations than federal guidelines.
  • FEMA should do a better job protecting the natural flood-absorbing capabilities of the flood plains. At its core, that means restricting development in those areas.
  • FEMA needs to improve its collection of policy and claims data, and support other state and federal agencies in their efforts to update flood predictions. "The accuracy of the federal flood data is no better than the baseline information from which it is derived," the report states.

Galloway said the United States shouldn't abandon longstanding communities in flood-prone areas. But the country has to come to grips with the reality of flooding and discourage construction in those areas.

"We continue to let people move into areas, put themselves at risk and say, 'Come protect us,'" he said. "That doesn't make sense."

Ultimately, Galloway said, the 1 percent standard can function as a minimum national standard, as long as local governments take into account the conditions that affect flood risk and go beyond those standards if necessary. "The answer to a lot of this is at the local level," he said.

"Even after you provide protection, there is a chance something will go wrong, and you have to be prepared for that. You as an individual should take responsibility ... People have to identify how much risk they really have."

Originally published on June 11, 2007 in the Mobile Press-Register. Courtesy of the Press-Register 2007 © All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


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