Greg Frank, P.E., CFM
"I’m not in a flood plain…or am I?"
Unfortunately this question is way too timely. Many Houstonians may have thought they were not in a floodplain, and yet found their homes underwater this past week. I attend several flood plain related conferences each year and this question is asked by any number of speakers. Each time, only a few of us raise our hands, after all we ARE flood plain managers and flood control engineers, so we should know better, right? But the brutal truth is that we are ALL living in a flood plain of some sort. I like to use the analogy ‘Noah built the ark for a reason… it rained for forty days and forty nights’.
We can’t afford to build drainage and flood control systems that protect us from such biblical floods. We, through the various governing entities, have to choose what level of protection we can afford, then try to protect ourselves from the residual risks above that level of protection. But, building such systems over the vast areas in which we live takes time and huge sums of money. In the meantime, we need to identify where the highest risks are and somehow limit our exposure to them, both financially and physically. That is where the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) comes into play. Back in 1968, Congress enacted legislation creating the NFIP with three major goals:
Flood risk identification, through mapping of the flood risks of each community and publishing the Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs);
Flood plain management, by promulgating minimum building and flood plain management standards and encouraging communities to exceed these minimum standards; and
Flood insurance, thus providing a mechanism for individuals to reduce their financial risk of flood losses. These programs are administered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), of which we have all heard.
Most of us know about the FIRMs (Zone AE, BFE, Zone X, etc.) and those of us in the land development business know about floodplain management regulations (minimum slab elevations, fill above the 100-yr, detention, etc.). What MANY people don’t know is that flood insurance isn’t only for those who live in a MAPPED flood plain (Zone A, AE), it is also available to people who live outside of the delineated floodplain or areas protected by some sort of man-made structure (Zone X and levee/dam protected areas). But what most people don’t realize is that the vast majority of the 100-year floodplain in this country, including significant parts of the 5-county area where we live, do not have the 100-year floodplain defined, so they may be at a much higher risk than they know.
Some of us know about Tropical Storm Claudette, and we all remember Tropical Storm Allison, Hurricane Katrina and Super-Storm Sandy. They caused severe flood damages over huge areas. Most of those damages occurred in areas that had no flood plains identified on the official flood plain maps because those areas and streams had never been studied or were outdated. Given this fact, a lot of people didn’t buy flood insurance and a lot of the damages were borne by either recovery grants or by the individuals themselves. This has caused FEMA to spend money from the NFIP on recovery that should have been insured, making the program go into debt.
Flood insurance is available under two basic scenarios: inside of a Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA) or flood zone, and outside of an SFHA (Zone X). If you purchase a mortgage from a federally-insured lender for a property within an SFHA you are required to purchase and maintain flood insurance on that property throughout the life of the loan. Sadly, only about 40% of such mortgages actually have that coverage in place (a failing of the system). Don’t be one of those people; you are playing with Mother Nature and will lose that game! Policies for properties outside of an SFHA are available (Preferred Rate Policies) which are very affordable and cover at least a part of the risk that you face.
What is Congress doing about all of this? Well, they passed some legislation in 2012 (Biggert-Waters 2012) which attempted to make some sweeping changes to the NFIP, then turned around and reversed certain aspects of that legislation (Grimm-Waters 2014) to try to make the NFIP solvent again. What all of this means is that our flood insurance rates are going up, BUT you should still insure yourself against that residual risk and the more people that buy insurance the lower the costs can be. If we get another Claudette or Allison down here, don’t find yourself uninsured with only your savings account to “bail you out”! And don’t think that because you escaped during Tropical Storm Allison, or this past week’s “historical” storm, you will escape the next time. Had that storm been centered over your neighborhood/watershed…you too would have flooded.