Galveston County residents might be making flood-risk decisions such as where not to build and whether to buy flood insurance based on maps that are out of date, in part because of trouble in the key federal council.
Reports from Washington Tuesday said work by FEMA’s Technical Mapping Advisory Council, charged with providing scientific information to the National Flood Insurance Program, has been halted for five months over a lack of a quorum. The council, which last met in September 2018, is composed of 20 experts tasked with answering complex questions about flood risk across the United States, but 16 of those 20 seats are empty and awaiting new appointees.
The council’s specific charge from Congress is “to ensure that flood insurance rate maps reflect the best available science and are based on the best available methodologies for considering the effect of future development on flood risk,” according to the FEMA website.
The national flood mapping program provides information to communities about local flood risk, and flood insurance rate maps established under the program are used to set flood insurance premiums.
But in many places, like Galveston County, people might be looking at flood hazard maps that are not up-to-date. A preliminary updated flood map for the county has been under consideration for several years, but has not been adopted, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Friendswood, which saw significant flooding during Hurricane Harvey, advises homeowners and those considering buying new property to look into the need for flood insurance based on the most recent provisional maps approved by the city, said Brian Rouane, chief building official for the city of Friendswood.
“The Galveston County flood risk map is 20 years old, dating back to 1999,” Rouane said. Friendswood’s city council adopted a preliminary map in 2018, applying stricter standards and newer information than the county’s FEMA map provides. The city has adopted ordinances allowing these changes.
That means potential homeowners might get contradictory information when they go to get a mortgage than they get from the city when they seek a building permit, Rouane said.
“Sometimes, this is the first they’re aware that they have to purchase flood insurance because they are in a flood hazard area,” Rouane said.
Friendswood sends out a flyer every year asking residents to contact them if they are uncertain about their flood insurance requirements.
“That’s where we can provide the best source of information,” Rouane said. “I had to go and get certified on how to read those maps and I can give them a clear answer.”
Significant changes have occurred since 1999 in the Friendswood area, expanding the flood hazard area in many cases and reducing it in others, Rouane said.
In Dickinson, it’s been clear that new flood risk maps were needed, but the process has been delayed, said Zach Meadows, director of community development.
“We’ve been operating off a 2012 map developed after Hurricane Ike,” Meadows said. “We just received a letter of final hazard determination from FEMA on Tuesday.”
The letter said the new map devised for Dickinson development purposes will be effective by August.
Meadows couldn’t say whether delays at FEMA have undermined his office’s ability to move forward providing accurate flood risk determination for potential homeowners, builders and others. But working with outdated maps is a problem, he said.
“I hate to say it, but if the new maps had been ready before Hurricane Harvey, it’s possible more people might have built out of harm’s way,” he said.
New risk maps for Hitchcock, Tiki Island and unincorporated areas of Galveston County were released in August for public review.
Residents in many areas of the county that were flooded out by Harvey were not required to have flood insurance, raising questions about the accuracy of floodplain maps and the need to re-evaluate flood hazard areas across the county.