Is My Home in a Flood Zone?

July 1, 2020

As real estate professionals field more questions about flood risk, a nonprofit research firm called the First Street Foundation unveiled a searchable website this week that allows homeowners to find detailed flood risk information on specific properties nationwide.

First Street says its maps show that nearly 6 million homes and commercial properties across the U.S. are at substantial risk of flooding—properties that aren’t reflected on federal flood maps that have long been used by homeowners, real estate professionals, lenders, and others to assess risk.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood maps have served as the standard for lenders in determining whether flood insurance is required for a mortgage under federal law. FEMA flood maps label properties throughout the U.S. that have at least a 1% annual risk of flooding known as a 100-year flood zone.

But the First Street’s new tool and analysis suggests that millions more U.S. homeowners may be at risk for flooding that isn’t reflected on FEMA maps. That could mean more homeowners at risk of flooding could benefit from considering the purchase of flood insurance to protect their properties from potentially costly damage.

FEMA notes that about 8.7 million properties have a 1% annual flood risk. First Street’s maps, however, place that number much higher, at 14.6 million properties.

First Street notes that FEMA’s maps are not designed to account for as many risks such as heavy rainfall events that back up sewers. Their maps, according to First Street, are far more encompassing also because they include areas of the country that FEMA hasn’t mapped. They also factor in current climate data and rainfall-related risks and flooding.

FEMA Assistant Administrator Michael Grimm acknowledged in testimony at a congressional hearing in February that while many of FEMA’s flood maps are current and meet their standards, some maps are more than 15 years old and there are factors that are not considered such as flood frequencies beyond the 100-year event. He said that FEMA’s maps also do not project future sea level rises or increased rainfall due to climate change.

However, FEMA did acknowledge the value of a more comprehensive set of flood risk maps and property specific tools. In a statement, FEMA said: “The FEMA Flood Insurance Risk Maps and First Street Foundation maps do not conflict with each other; rather they complement one another by depicting different types of risk. Users should explore the differences between the maps to build a more comprehensive understanding of flood risk.”

The National Association of REALTORS® has long supported efforts to improve the accuracy and reliability of FEMA’s flood maps and is encouraged that others such as First Street are working to augment the tools needed to educate consumers about flood risk. The association is currently reviewing hundreds of pages about the scientific methods and data contained within the report and looks forward to learning more. NAR has already developed educational materials, legal guidance, and sample disclosure statements to guide its members in discussing the flood maps with their customers and intends to update the information as needed.

“We have a lot more flood risk in the country than we currently understand,” Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, told The Wall Street Journal. But Berginnis cautions that First Street’s maps and the methodology used still need to be carefully reviewed.

First Street is making its flood risk data available to consumers for free. This data is already being used by many financial services companies, but this is the first time these tools are being made available to the public to better inform flood risks. Its data also includes projections of how each property’s flood risk might change over the next three decades based on climate models.

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