FEMA Flood Maps: Better Planning and Analysis Needed to Address Current and Future Flood Hazards
The Federal Emergency Management Agency maps flood hazard areas to help guide the National Flood Insurance Program and the flood mitigation efforts of property owners, community planners, insurers, and others. (The insurance program is on our High Risk List.)
The FEMA flood hazard maps we examined didn't reflect the best available climate science or include information on current flood hazards (e.g., heavy rainfall that overwhelms existing storm drainage systems). FEMA's flood mapping program may take years to address these issues and has been operating under an out-of-date plan. Our recommendations address these issues and more.
What GAO Found
The Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Risk Mapping, Assessment, and Planning (Risk MAP) program has increased its development of flood maps and other flood risk products, but faces challenges ensuring they comprehensively reflect current and future flood hazards. For example, its flood risk products do not reflect hazards such as heavy rainfall and the best available climate science. These products include maps—known as Flood Insurance Rate Maps—and nonregulatory flood risk products such as estimates of flood damage in an area. FEMA's Risk MAP program is addressing some of these challenges, but many may require years to address. However, Risk MAP has been operating under an out-of-date plan that does not reflect new goals, objectives, activities, performance measures, and associated timeframes. Updating its program plan to include these elements could help FEMA effectively manage and coordinate its efforts to incorporate current and future flood hazards in a timely way.
Example of River Flooding
FEMA does not periodically assess the usefulness of its nonregulatory flood risk products, which are intended to help communities increase their resilience to floods. According to FEMA, it has invested millions of dollars in developing Risk MAP nonregulatory products; however, the agency has not assessed the usefulness of these products in increasing community resilience since 2016. Establishing mechanisms for periodically assessing the usefulness of its nonregulatory products could help FEMA ensure it is investing in products that address community need and have a meaningful impact on enhancing flood resilience.
FEMA prioritizes mapping projects with input from all levels of government and FEMA regional offices, but could better use available data to inform its mapping efforts. FEMA's decision-making process has emphasized directing resources to areas with greatest flood risks. Additionally, in 2020, FEMA established a strategic priority for considering socially-vulnerable populations as part of disaster resilience. According to GAO's statistical analyses of data from the Risk MAP program and FEMA's publicly available disaster risk assessment tools, FEMA's mapping investments for fiscal years 2012 to 2020 were greater where flood risks were higher, but were lower for areas of higher socially-vulnerable populations. By considering ways to leverage available data into its annual process for prioritizing its flood mapping investments, FEMA could enhance its ability to make well-informed decisions that meet agency and federal priorities and disaster resilience goals.
Why GAO Did This Study
FEMA is responsible for producing and updating Flood Insurance Rate Maps and nonregulatory products to show areas of greatest flood hazards and help guide floodplain management actions under the National Flood Insurance Program. While FEMA has mapped millions of miles of the nation's streams and coastlines, questions have been raised about whether its flood risk products provide a comprehensive picture of flood risk.
The Additional Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Act of 2019 required GAO to review issues related to 2018 disasters. As part of this body of work, this report addresses (1) the extent FEMA has developed Flood Insurance Rate Maps and nonregulatory products that reflect current and future flood hazards, (2) the extent FEMA has assessed its efforts to enhance flood resilience, and (3) how FEMA prioritizes its mapping resources to create and update Flood Insurance Rate Maps. GAO reviewed agency documents and strategic plans; analyzed FEMA data; and interviewed FEMA, selected states and localities, and flood mapping experts.
GAO recommends that FEMA (1) update its Risk MAP program plan to identify goals, time frames, and other elements related to its efforts to reflect current and future flood hazards; (2) develop mechanisms to assess the usefulness of its nonregulatory flood risk products; and (3) consider ways to leverage its flood risk data to help prioritize its mapping investment decisions. The Department of Homeland Security concurred with our recommendations.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Federal Emergency Management Agency||The Administrator of FEMA should update its multiyear plan for the Risk MAP program to identify program goals, objectives, activities, performance measures, and time frames for its various efforts to address challenges in reflecting current and future flood hazards and to transition to a future program. (Recommendation 1)||
On September 2022, FEMA stated it is currently developing an updated multiyear plan for the Risk MAP program. Estimated for completion by the end of March 2023, the multiyear plan will support the program's goals, and include program measures aligned to the objectives and an implementation plan defining program activities.
|Federal Emergency Management Agency||The Administrator of FEMA should establish mechanisms for periodically assessing the usefulness of its Risk MAP nonregulatory products for communities in increasing their flood resilience. Such mechanisms could include tracking increases in building standards among those communities that use nonregulatory products, or conducting periodic loss avoidance studies. (Recommendation 2)||
On September 2022, FEMA stated that staff and contract resources are still being finalized to assess the usefulness of Risk MAP nonregulatory products (NRPs) in assisting communities with increasing flood resilience. A final report to FEMA's Risk Management Directorate's leadership will include (1) recommendations on specific measures that will be utilized to assess Risk Map non-regulatory products' utility in increasing flood resilience; (2) how those measures will be implemented; and (3) the tempo for continued evaluation. Estimated completion time is December 2022.
|Federal Emergency Management Agency||The Administrator of FEMA should consider ways to leverage and integrate available flood risk data, such as through statistical analyses, into its annual process for prioritizing flood mapping investments. Such available data sources include its Risk MAP's inventory of FIRM mapping projects and FEMA's national disaster risk assessment tools. (Recommendation 3)||
On June 2022, FEMA stated it had developed a new data tool to consolidate multiple datasets across FEMA, partner agencies, and academic entities into its annual process for prioritizing flood mapping investments. According to FEMA, collecting all these data in one location will help to consider different factors that can affect the timing, cost, and ability to deliver new flood hazard and risk data to communities. In addition during 2022, FEMA will assess the incorporation of additional criteria into project selection, such as ensuring social equity in project development, and the remaining regulatory requirements identified in the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, such as, graduated risk and future conditions flood risk. On September 2022, FEMA stated that it is continuing to evaluate existing datasets and data sharing methods and is gathering feedback from the 10 FEMA Regions. The agency plans to finalize incorporating feedback from the regions in mid-November 2022. In the meantime, FEMA stated that it has updated its standards to identify the datasets that should be the baseline for evaluating where to prioritize studies which will be used in support of decision process. Estimated completion is December 2022.