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Drawing lines: FEMA and the politics of mapping flood zones


Flooding is the most common and damaging of all natural disasters in USA, and climate change is exacerbating the problem. Accurate flood maps are critical to communicating flood risk to vulnerable populations, to mitigating and adapting to floods, and to the functioning of the federal flood insurance program. Yet, we know little about how the mapping process works in practice. This article argues that politics can shape the remapping process in ways that leave communities vulnerable. Because mapping takes place within the context of the National Flood Insurance Program, the conversation at the local level often centers on the costs of revising the flood hazard zones rather than the risks associated with flooding. This can lead to less than optimal responses by individuals and communities, and suggests that the USA is not adequately preparing for future climate change impacts.

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  1. Interviews were conducted with a founder of the National Association of Floodplain Managers; an official at FEMA Region II who is responsible for remapping projects throughout the northeast; three FEMA officials who work in FEMA’s Washington, D.C., headquarters; a floodplain expert at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation; an expert on the NFIP who consults with FEMA; a Syracuse city engineer; a representative of the Syracuse Mayor’s office; and the director of Syracuse United Neighbors, a community group representing low-income residents of Syracuse. The semi-structured interviews were conducted between February 2017 and January 2018 and lasted an average of 1 h. Some interviewees requested anonymity when discussing sensitive topics.

  2. The 2014 US National Climate Assessment report attributes the increase in heavy precipitation events in the USA over the last three to five decades to changing weather patterns and storms due to human-caused warming of the atmosphere. The report also warns that floods may intensify in many parts of the USA due to climate change (Melillo 2014).

  3. From 1980 to 2009, floods caused more than half a million deaths worldwide and affected more than 2.8 billion people. In the USA, floods caused over 4500 deaths from 1959 to 2005 while property and crop damage cost around 8 billion dollars annually over a 30-year period from 1980 to 2011. See Melillo (2014).

  4. Details about the process are available on the FEMA website; they have been left out of this summary for purposes of readability and length.

  5. On “hidden” government policies, see Mettler (2011) and Faricy (2016).

  6. My interview subjects all agreed that insurance costs were central to the map negotiation process, and suggested that elected officials were most concerned about the insurance costs and their potential effect on residents and development. One subject admitted that most communities sought the smallest flood zones and lowest base flood elevations possible, but added that if these were based on accurate technical data, then it was not a problem.

  7. Interviews with FEMA officials and others involved in floodplain management confirmed that this is a common refrain that they hear in communities that have not recently experienced flooding events.

  8. The Technical Mapping Advisory Council, a committee that makes recommendations to FEMA, recognizes this problem. In their 2015 and 2016 reports, they recommend transitioning to a flood risk assessment that is structure specific. Each building, in other words, would be rated for its flood risk based on its elevation, the nature and severity of the flood risk, and other characteristics. Insurance premiums would be based on these factors, not on whether a property is in or outside the 100-year flood zone. See TMAC (2016).

  9. Several interview subjects thought the increased flows were due in part to the changing climate.

  10. Officials directly involved in the remapping process characterized it as tense and adversarial, at least at the beginning.

  11. Comments were made at a Syracuse United Neighbors (SUN) meeting with representatives from Syracuse’s congressional delegation. April 11, 2017.

  12. Voters tend to reward politicians for delivering disaster relief but not for investing in disaster preparedness, which does not bode well for climate change adaptation policies. See Healy and Malhotra (2009).


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Correspondence to Sarah Pralle.

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This article is part of a Special Issue on “Adapting to Water Impacts of Climate Change” edited by Debra Javeline, Nives Dolšak, and Aseem Prakash.

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Pralle, S. Drawing lines: FEMA and the politics of mapping flood zones. Climatic Change 152, 227–237 (2019).

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