National Flood Awareness Week — An Opportunity to Communicate Flood Risk

This week is National Flood Awareness Week, so when I heard that NBC’s Nightly News with Brian Williams would be broadcasting a “Fleecing of America” story on FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Policy (NFIP), I eagerly tuned in. I was hoping to finally see the mainstream media dive into the complex issue of flood insurance. Perhaps they would finally investigate how the federal government subsidizes rebuilding “repetitive loss” properties that get flooded over and over. Or maybe they would investigate how local governments choose developers over safety and building homes behind levees that are bound to fail eventually requiring our federal tax dollars to bail the community out with disaster relief.

Unfortunately, NBC’s George Lewis missed the opportunity and took a narrow, one-sided look at flood management by focusing on just one of the many issues and challenges with the nation’s flood management: inaccurate flood maps. 

The report highlights a poor community in south Los Angeles that was recently told that their home falls within a flood zone and they must buy flood insurance. The community believes that the maps are wrong and that they are not actually in the flood zone. I think everyone can understand the community’s economic concerns with the added expense and I don’t think anyone would argue that low income people should be made to choose whether to pay for milk and bread or flood insurance, especially in today’s economic environment.

However, instead of investigating whether the community is actually at risk, NBC chose to speculate that FEMA is charging flood insurance to poor communities in order to get out of $17 billion dollar debt brought on by the Hurricane Katrina disaster. The truth is that under requirements from Congress, FEMA is undergoing a long needed effort to update their flood maps using state-of-the-art technology that reflects changes in the floodplain since the original maps were drawn decades ago. Unfortunately, these changes and more accurate data mean that some people are now faced with the hard truth that they now live in a flood risk area.

If NBC is really concerned about the “fleecing of America” they should take a thorough look at the nation’s flood management and they would find that the NFIP is one of the most effective tools available for protecting people from floods; that flood maps need to be further updated to reflect the 100-year flood zone, 500-year flood zone, and recent and future development; that moving people out of harm’s way should be a priority; and that it is essential that FEMA continue educating people about the true risk of flooding.