Congress is united in one thing not updating flood maps.
Chris Sadowski | Congress is united in one thing not updating flood maps.

Congress is closer than ever to reauthorizing the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). But lawmakers are far from meaningfully supporting a well-intentioned program that has become a disaster.

Introduced in 1968 to manage development in floodplains, the National Flood Insurance Act was the nation's first land-use planning program and affects eligibility for Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) reimbursement. Today the program is $18 billion in debt due to long-outdated subsidies, ineffective remediation requirements, and inaccurate maps. Even with residents and businesses in 21,000 communities in all 50 states paying $3 billion in premiums annually, last year floods caused $8 billion in damages and 113 deaths.

The House bill (H.R. 1309) passed in July 2011 with only 22 members voting "no" and a Senate committee followed suit the next month. The bills take similar approaches, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) refused to let the Senate's S. 1940 come to the floor until this summer.

"Without significant reform, taxpayers will continue to be asked to bail out the program and subsidize public and private development in risk areas," says Sarah Murdock, senior policy adviser for The Nature Conservancy. Environmental groups like hers are particularly concerned about coastal wetlands.

The program is underwater for numerous reasons. According to a 2011 Government Accountability Office report:

  • Half the residents required to buy flood insurance don't
  • The payments of the 20% who do are subsidized
  • Although residents living behind levees in 100-year floodplains (defined as having a 1% per year chance of being flooded) aren't required to buy insurance, getting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or FEMA to certify that a levee meets the standards necessary to obviate the need for insurance is difficult.

Public works departments are most concerned with accurate flood maps.

"They help identify the risk to facilities such as storage bins, garages, and buildings," says American Public Works Association Emergency Management Government Affairs Manager Laura Berkey-Ames. They also help in determining mitigation measures such as sandbag placement.

Map accuracy made some progress under President George W. Bush, who engineered $200 million/year for five years for "modernization" beginning in 2003. Previously, FEMA had relied on insurance premiums, which generated $100 million/year. The boost allowed the agency to digitize maps serving 92% of the nation's population — but only one-quarter are based on updated engineering data.

With appropriations having dropped to $90 million annually, RISKMap "has sort of drifted," says one source.

Here's the bigger obstacle

Many representatives oppose a more muscular program because better maps would cause more constituents to pay higher insurance premiums as new areas are designated "flood prone." The Senate's proposal authorizes $400 million annually — an amount Congress would never appropriate. The House proposal contains no authorization.

Both bills authorize a Technical Mapping Advisory Council, with the House allowing the council to force FEMA to adopt recommended standards unless Congress disapproves.Even if the Senate passes a proposal, it will have to be conferenced with the House bill, which has different language on a number of provisions. A compromise bill would probably emerge to be signed by President Obama. But any improvements, including FEMA's ability to quickly update maps and — as importantly — make them "stick" in communities opposed to paying higher premiums, are likely to be marginal.

Steve Barlas is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer who covers regulatory issues, with a special emphasis on EPA.