I had the opportunity this week to attend a National Association of Flood and Stormwater Management Agencies (NAFSMA) Mentoring Session on the Future [of] Flood Risk Data. This session, offered by NAFSMA in partnership with FEMA and including other interested parties, educated folks on several FEMA missions and discussed how those missions should handle the Future [of] Flood Risk Data.

(I know you are wondering about the [of] – more on that later.)

FEMA has a number of missions, but in the area of flood risk at least four stand out: (1) disaster recovery following a storm event; (2) implementation of the National Flood Insurance Program, designed to provide an optional program for mitigating flood risk in some areas, and a mandatory program in areas of higher risk; (3) grant programs designed to make changes on the ground so as to mitigate future flood risk; and (4) the assessment and communication of flood risk to allow communities to make wise decisions, including land use decisions. While the first three missions have been very public, in my experience this fourth mission has lacked the same level of community awareness and involvement. I think that is going to change.

As we FEMA-watchers know, for about a decade now, FEMA has been sharing that it is moving from a binary approach (in which some areas have risk that FEMA is concerned about, and other areas do not have that risk) to instead recognizing a graduated risk profile and using FEMA’s data collection and tools to demonstrate it. FEMA is also trying to help people understand that not all flood risk is the same, even if it looked the same on old FEMA maps. FEMA believes that moving forward, this will be another decade-long journey, a journey that will allow for better decision-making with a more nuanced understanding of risk.

At the mentoring session, I had a chance to see some of the ways in which FEMA is showing and using data it is collecting, and it was an opportunity to learn about the future that FEMA is predicting. FEMA’s collection of data is allowing the development of models that drill down on the effect of storms in ever-smaller grids (or nodes), acknowledging the difference in conditions not only on opposite sides of a watershed, but even on opposite ends of a street. One example that FEMA gave was about two nearby properties in Florida. Both properties were at a similar elevation and both were mapped with about a 1% chance of flood from wave action. However, the modeling showed that one of the properties would be subject to five feet of wave action, while the other was subject to 10 feet of wave action. 

Once you understand the power of this data as it is gathered for every watershed and every community, you can start to see and ask how the data should be used. At this point, FEMA thinks its use will be for “non-regulatory purposes.” In other words, it could be used by communities to make wise decisions about land use now and into the future. The data can be effective in helping communities understand and manage their risk. That’s a pretty good goal, right?

And now a word about [of]:

One might ask, are we talking about the future OF flood risk data, or are we talking about future flood risk data?  Asked differently, are we talking about what data will be available in the future as it is collected and modeled, or are we talking about modeling now what we think that data will be, incorporating a prediction of land use changes, climate change, and any other relevant variable?  Well, I think we are talking about both, but FEMA is acknowledging that the latter (predicting future conditions) is hard, and there may not be agreement on all of the science. But even acknowledging that, a future prediction could be useful when making land use decisions now, knowing more about what the future may look like. But while there isn’t necessarily agreement on what and how this predictive data should be used, FEMA was explicit that it can’t use predictions of future conditions in setting insurance rates for today. Rates must be set for the current risk, not what a model thinks the risk might be in 10, 20, or 50 years. 

For more information on the future of flood risk data, please see:  https://www.fema.gov/fact-sheet/future-flood-risk-data-ffrd

Photo of Scott L. Shapiro Scott L. Shapiro

Scott Shapiro is known for his expertise in flood protection improvement projects throughout California’s Central Valley.
He is helping clients with more than a billion dollars in projects in California’s Central Valley and issues involving the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the…

Scott Shapiro is known for his expertise in flood protection improvement projects throughout California’s Central Valley.
He is helping clients with more than a billion dollars in projects in California’s Central Valley and issues involving the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) throughout the Western United States.

With a special focus on massive flood protection improvement projects, Scott advises clients through regulatory, contractual, financing, and legislative challenges. Acting as general or special counsel, he regularly interacts with senior management at USACE (Headquarters, South Pacific Division, and Sacramento District), the California Department of Water Resources, and the Central Valley Flood Protection Board. He was named to the National Section 408 Task Force and has been invited to give testimony to the National Academies. Scott was instrumental in helping the first regional flood improvement agency that took a basin threatened by flood risk from less than 30-year level of protection to a level of protection approaching 200-year.

Having worked with FEMA on issues of floodplain mapping and levee accreditation for many years, Scott has developed collaborative environments in which he fosters win-win solutions for his clients. He is also currently serving as the lead counsel on a flood insurance rate map (FIRM) appeal and has drafted Federal legislation to modify the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) several times.

Scott is known throughout the region for his extensive litigation experience focusing on cases arising from levee failures. He has litigated levee failures resulting from underseepage, failed encroachments, and rodent burrows as well as briefing levee overtopping cases at the appellate level. Scott is one of the few attorneys with experience litigating flood cases on behalf of plaintiffs as well as defendant government entities.