Tag Archives: coastal risk consulting

FEMA Flood Maps Aren’t Good Enough

FEMA flood maps are not particularly glamorous or technologically exciting. They have done their work for many years and, provided that they are up to date, are an effective way of communicating a generalized level of flood risk. FEMA flood maps have been the primary, flood insurance underwriting tool for the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). That program is currently billions of dollars in debt to the U.S. Treasury due to premium subsidization.

Also, FEMA flood maps have been used extensively by local governments in their efforts to keep development out of the floodiest areas of the U.S. That has not worked out so well, either, as coastal and riverine developments in the most flood-prone areas have abounded over the past 30-years. As we saw with the Hurricane Harvey disaster in 2017, FEMA flood maps are far from perfect. Nearly a hundred thousand homeowners in the FEMA X Zone (500-year, or 0.2% annual risk) in Houston, who were told that they did not need or were not required to purchase flood insurance, had their homes severely damaged by Harvey’s heavy rainfall flooding.

In 2016, we at Coastal Risk Consulting observed that FEMA flood maps did not provide comprehensive enough flood risk assessments to allow individuals and businesses to make accurate “buy, sell, protect and insure” decisions at the property level. So, Coastal Risk identified a number of improvements that could be made to the FEMA flood maps, including downscaling risk mapping to the individual property level, and made them publicly available for purchase at www.floodscores.com for any property in the U.S.

FEMA flood maps don’t tell the whole story about your risk of flooding.

First, as was seen with Hurricane Harvey flooding in Houston, FEMA flood maps don’t include heavy rainfall flooding risks to your home or business. Properties in FEMA X Zones, which don’t require flood insurance for federally insured mortgages, may definitely need to be insured to protect them from heavy rainfall flooding. Coastal Risk models heavy rainfall flood risk for every property in the U.S.; FEMA flood maps do not.

See also: Emerging Market for Flood Insurance  

FEMA flood maps also don’t include coastal tidal flooding risks to your home or business. Tidal flooding is a property damage “threat multiplier.” When hurricanes come ashore at high tide or even a King Tide, which often occurs in the fall on the Atlantic Coast of the U.S., properties with existing tide flooding are at much greater risk of damage and loss than those that don’t experience tidal flooding. FEMA flood maps do not take this type of flooding into account, now and into the future as sea levels rise. King Tides occurs during the height of hurricane season. Because King Tides are due to astronomy and not weather, scientists know precisely when they will occur.

FEMA flood maps also underestimate the height of hurricane storm surge, as compared with NOAA models. NOAA surge models typically show higher water heights than the FEMA Base Flood Elevations (BFEs), which are a key component of the FEMA flood maps. The higher the surge, the greater the economic damage and loss to properties, and the greater the risk of injury and death to those who don’t evacuate in advance of these storms.

Future of Flood Insurance

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria laid bare fundamental inadequacies of the current flood insurance program in the U.S. Too few homeowners had flood insurance in place. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood maps were inadequate to encompass actual flood risks and, even more importantly, outreach programs by FEMA and the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) were inadequate to properly communicate risks to the market.

See also: Time to Mandate Flood Insurance?  

The current hurricane season revealed an astounding lack of resiliency in the U.S. on many levels: (1) lack of insurance coverages; (2) inadequate mapping of flood risks; (3) failure to properly educate homeowners about their actual flood risks; and, (4) gross under-investment in resilient infrastructure by all levels of U.S. governments.

As Congress prepares to slash budgets and cut taxes, the fact that Hurricane Irma easily topped City of Miami’s sea walls with only Category 1 strength winds and brought a four-foot river of water down Brickell Avenue, the center of Miami’s Financial District, shows how much work needs to be done to achieve resiliency in just one U.S. city.

In its rush to reduce taxes, Congress is ignoring the U.S. infrastructure deficit, which is estimated to be in the multiple trillions of dollars by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The slide deck that I prepared for the Future of Flood Summit discusses new, cost-effective tools for flood risk modeling, flood risk report production and flood risk communication. A central theme is: “Can the insurance industry do a better job of helping insureds and societies cope with the increasing risks they are facing, as our climate changes and sea levels rise?”

You can find the presentation here.

Getting to ‘Resilient’ After Harvey and Irma

Before any “lessons learned” speechifying, we should first pray for those who lost their lives and family members and homes and livelihoods to the nearly “biblical storms” Harvey and Irma. For those still in shelters and still being rescued, we wish them Godspeed.

There are so many lessons from these two storms. Where to begin? Let’s begin with a word: “resilient.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “resilient” as: (a) “capable of withstanding shock without permanent deformation or rupture; and, (b) tending to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” Clearly, as we look at our flooded and battered communities in Texas, Florida and South Carolina, we see that they are not meeting this definition.

See also: Harvey: First Big Test for Insurtech  

As individuals and societies, we strive, as we should, to be as resilient as we can be. Why? Because if we are not resilient in ourselves, our properties, our neighborhoods and our societies, we simply put our misfortunes on our neighbors, involuntarily, whether they can handle those burdens or not. Recall the story of the “Three Little Pigs” that we all learned as children. The two silly pig brothers who danced and sang and built their houses of straw and sticks ended up depending on the brother who built his house of bricks to save them from the huffing and puffing of the big, bad wolf. The wind-blowing wolf is certainly an apt analog for Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

What makes us and our societies resilient? There are several important aspects of lack of resiliency that Harvey and Irma have starkly revealed. The majority of homeowners with flood damages in Texas and Florida in the recent storms did not have flood insurance. Most all of these people owned cars, and, because of state laws, they all had automobile casualty insurance. Driving without insurance would be unlawful, yet their homes, where the majority of their net worth was invested, were without coverage. Whatever their homes were actually made of, they were financial “sticks and straw,” without flood insurance. Flood insurance is a critical component of resilience for the individual and for society at large, which will now direct billions of its tax dollars for FEMA relief. In the case of most homeowners who were wiped out by these storms, they could have afforded flood insurance but opted not to have it.

Insurance is one component of resilience, but it is not the only factor. Let’s talk about personal responsibility. There are many relatively minor and cost-effective measures that homeowners in floody areas can take, short of raising their homes on stilts. Flood prevention investments can include: backflow preventers, storm shutters, removable flood barriers, raising electrical outlets, raising HVAC equipment off the ground, minor regrading and installing salt-tolerant vegetation. The list could go on and on.

Why don’t most homeowners in the vulnerable coastal areas make these investments? One reason is that they lack comprehensive, flood-risk-vulnerability information about their own properties. The FEMA flood maps’ “binary” approach – in or out of the 100-year flood zone – has not been effective in communicating all of the various flood risks to which homeowners are subject. For example, FEMA flood maps do not include tidal flooding risks, NOAA maximum-storm-surge risks (which may be much greater in flood height) and heavy rainfall/high groundwater risks. This is why my company, Coastal Risk Consulting, developed its online, comprehensive flood risk assessments at www.floodscores.com – to help coastal residents get climate-ready and storm-safe.

Once homeowners and their neighbors truly understand their flood risks from the “bottom up,” then, and only then, will they be able to effectively mitigate their personal risks and advocate with their town, county, state and federal representatives regarding the “top down” resiliency efforts — and appropriation of funds needed to make public infrastructure climate-ready and storm-safe. Both individual and government investments in resilience are required to make us and our communities “resilient,” especially in light of increasingly intense storms.

The next resiliency challenge for the owners of properties damaged by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma is whether and how to rebuild to become more flood-resistant in the face of severe weather to come. Many motivational speakers have orated: “In the Chinese language, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other opportunity.” Whether this is linguistically correct or not, it makes a good point. The multiple billions of dollars of property damages wrought by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma provides society with, perhaps, a generational opportunity: How should the hundreds of damaged communities rebuild themselves? Will they rebuild in the same locations and at the same elevations and with the same “lack of flood preventions”?

In “Three Little Pigs” parlance, will they rebuild houses of sticks and straw or will they build “brick” houses that can withstand the floods and winds brought on by the next set of storms? Will local, state and federal governments say “enough is enough?” Will our elected representatives work with our visionary architects and engineers to rapidly change building codes and land use and zoning laws, to begin to make our communities more resilient?

See also: Time to Mandate Flood Insurance?  

As much as I hope for such a result, I would not, however, bet the house and the dog that our politicians will say what everyone knows they should say, namely, “Enough is enough.”