Data Driven Musings on FEMA Flood Risk Management Tools

We frequently attend local and national conferences that are focused on the topic of flood risk management. During these conferences, we have the opportunity to speak with local community floodplain managers about the challenges they face on a day-to-day basis and the tools and datasets that can be of assistance in navigating these challenges. Such tools and datasets include those developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) through its Risk Mapping, Assessment and Planning (Risk MAP) program to help local communities identify, manage, and reduce flood risk. Having worked closely with FEMA on many projects, we know how useful these Risk MAP products can be in the right hands and with the proper training. Yet, through our work with local floodplain managers, we began to realize that not all of FEMA’s products are being used as extensively as they can and should be.

We began questioning why this is and how an increase in use could be realized. However, we first needed hard data from front-line users in flood prone communities. To accomplish this, we developed a survey for completion by our existing local community contacts, LinkedIn connections and groups, and floodplain manager conference attendees. The survey questions were crafted to gain a better understanding of the following issues:

  • Which FEMA flood risk and mapping products are local floodplain management officials using the most?
  • Which products hold the most value to local officials?
  • Are there indicators for product enhancements or new products?
  • How can communities and FEMA get the best return on the investment placed in developing these products?

Data Discovery

Our survey yielded interesting results gathered from local floodplain managers from communities across 12 states. Although our survey was limited in geography and does not represent a statistical sample, it can be seen as a starting point and a way to begin the conversation about which FEMA flood risk and mapping products are and are not currently being leveraged by local officials, the primary audience for such products.

Regulatory Flood Mapping Products

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Since 1968, FEMA has prepared hard copies of Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs) to indicate the areas that will be inundated by a flood event, with a 1 percent chance of being equaled or exceeded in a given year, for communities that participate in the National Flood Insurance Program. This is one of the most important FEMA products used by communities to manage their floodplains.

Recently, FEMA has also begun hosting the geospatial flood hazard data depicted on the FIRMs on an interactive mapping platform known as the FEMA GeoPlatform that is publicly available online. One of our survey questions gauged the adoption of the GeoPlatform in reviewing individual properties or neighborhoods. It is interesting to note that while all respondents used the paper format FIRMs, more than 25 percent of the respondents also used the geospatial data on the GeoPlatform. Our initial conclusion is that the use of Google Earth, Google Maps, and other online tools has made users more open to accessing such geospatial information online.

Non-Regulatory Flood Risk Products

FEMA also developed a wide array of non-regulatory flood risk products (e.g., flood depth grids, Changes Since Last FIRM [CSLF], risk assessment datasets, etc.) These products help community members and officials visualize their local flood risk, allowing them to make informed decisions about reducing potential loss and damage from flood hazards. While our survey found that the awareness of these products’ capabilities is low, local official respondents expressed a desire to learn more about these products. According to our survey, the two non-regulatory flood risk products that are used most widely are:

  • Flood Depth Grids: Dataset showing the depth in the floodplain during the 1 percent annual chance flood event
  • Changes Since Last FIRM: Dataset that identifies areas of floodplain and flood zone changes since the previous flood map study (i.e., changes in areas that will need flood insurance and areas that will not once a preliminary FIRM becomes effective)

Both of these products are powerful outreach tools due to their simplicity and ability to interpret, which is why we hope to spread awareness of these products and their applications among local officials.

Engineering Backup Data

The information being developed under the Risk MAP program is based on high-quality topographic information, modeling, and mapping; which is available to communities and other stakeholders for local use. This information is captured in Technical Support Data Notebooks (TSDNs), which contain all of the support data for a community for which FEMA published a FIRM or revisions to that FIRM. However, our survey found that very few respondents were aware of this backup data or how to obtain it.

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FIRMettes – Still in Demand

The responses to the free format section of our survey revealed a vocal and strong endorsement of the FIRMette, a full-scale portion of a FIRM panel that users can generate in PDF format for themselves through FEMA’s Map Service Center based on a particular area of interest. According to survey results, the ability to develop such a document that looks and feels like a FIRM but is for a specific property or neighborhood is extremely useful to local floodplain managers. Efforts to continually enhance this functionality would likely be appreciated by users.

Looking Forward

We presented our survey results at the Association of State Floodplain Managers Annual Conference and the Oklahoma Floodplain Managers Association Conference earlier this year. FEMA and others in the floodplain management industry have a clear interest in better understanding which products communities are using and which are providing the most value. We look forward to continued work on this topic to better leverage FEMA products and community investments for improved floodplain management and mitigation practices.

For more on information on the FEMA GeoPlatform, click here.


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