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FEMA Flood-Risk Maps Failed Residents in Midwest
After all, local officials had assured townspeople in 1999 that the levee was sturdy enough to withstand a historic flood, and FEMA had agreed. In fact, some relieved homeowners dropped their flood insurance, and others applied for permits to build new houses and businesses.
Then on Tuesday, the worst happened: The levee burst, and Gulfport was submerged in 10 feet of water. Only 28 property owners were insured against the damage.
"They all told us, 'The levees are good. You can go ahead and build,' " said Parks, who did not buy flood coverage because her bank no longer required it. "We had so much confidence in those levees."
Around the country, thousands of residents who relied on risk maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency may unknowingly face similar dangers.
"People put all their hopes in those levees, and when they do fail, the damage is catastrophic," said Paul Osman, the National Flood Insurance Program coordinator for Illinois. "New Orleans is the epitome; a lot of those people didn't even realize they were in a floodplain until the water was up to their roofs."
Mike Buckley, a FEMA deputy assistant administrator, said agency officials encourage everyone to buy federal flood insurance and have never claimed that levees eliminate the risk of flooding.
But now -- amid the disastrous flooding across Iowa, Illinois and Missouri -- some policymakers are demanding that the government come up with more-accurate, up-to-date flood-risk assessments, inform the public better of the dangers and require nearly all homeowners to buy coverage if they live near dams or levees.
FEMA relies on outside engineers whose job is to certify whether a levee can withstand a 100-year flood -- that is, a flood so big that there is only a 1 percent chance of it happening in any given year. If FEMA agrees with the certification, then the homes and businesses protected by the levee are not considered to be in a floodplain. That means homeowners living there do not have to buy federal flood insurance.
However, some FEMA floodplain maps are 20 years old and seriously outdated, based on old evaluations of levees and river conditions.
FEMA, which administers the National Flood Insurance Program, has spent almost $1 billion since 2003 so far to modernize its maps, which Buckley said are for insurance purposes, not to indicate people are safe.
Moreover, some of this year's floods exceeded the 100-year benchmark, including Gulfport's flood, which was a 500-year deluge, the Army Corps of Engineers said.
FEMA said it is up to Congress to decide whether everyone whose home could be swamped by a breach of a levee or dam should be required to buy flood insurance.
Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., has sponsored a bill passed by the Senate that would require just that. It would also require FEMA to assess the risks more accurately.
Larry Larson, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, said FEMA should not wait for Congress. But he said he doubts that the agency will act on its own, because the move would be too politically unpopular.
Many residents and communities strongly resist attempts to force them to buy coverage because of the cost and the belief that it will hurt economic development, said Doug Bellomo, director of FEMA's risk analysis division.
"From our perspective, while flood insurance isn't free, it is a way of hedging your investment in property against a risk we have pretty good understanding of," Bellomo said.
© 2008 Associated Press