Report: Flood-prone properties need better tracking by FEMA

The Federal Emergency Management Agency hasn’t been keeping close enough tabs on properties that frequently flood, making it harder for some property owners to lower their flood insurance rates.

A September report from the U.S. Inspector General found that FEMA isn’t adequately managing severe repetitive loss properties — properties that frequently and repeatedly flood. If properties suffer severe flooding multiple times, they can be put on the list. And once there, property owners are required to buy insurance from FEMA instead of a private insurer.

These properties are given higher priority for grant funding to flood-proof properties, relocate families and convert the properties to open land or elevate existing structures.

But FEMA tracks these properties, and owners end up paying a higher flood insurance bill. Once the properties have been mitigated, like putting houses on stilts, the owners can apply through their local county or city governments to have the properties removed and their insurance rates lowered.

Across the U.S., there were nearly 38,000 such properties identified as of March 2019. Nearly three-quarters were classified as not mitigated, with Texas and Louisiana topping the list.

But the Inspector General report found that 17% of 837 frequently flooded properties it examined were incorrectly classified as unmitigated, even though there had been mitigation activities.

“Properties that have been mitigated but remain designated as non-mitigation on the (severe repetitive loss) list can have significant financial implications for property owners,” the report states. “Specifically, once a property is placed on (the list), Biggert-Waters (Flood Insurance Reform Act) requires its annual National Flood Insurance Program premium be increased by 25 percent until the premium matches the property’s true flood risk.”

This higher premium is designed to persuade such property owners to mitigate against future flooding. But there’s only one form that can remove a property from the severe repetitive loss list, and it must be completed by a local official.

According to a FEMA Region 10 data, there are 461 severe repetitive loss properties in King County, with 181 in unincorporated King County. Snoqualmie has the highest number with 200 properties in its borders.

However, the report notes that this form isn’t clear that its purpose is to remove such properties, and the Inspector General’s office found state and local officials were confused by it. On top of this, there’s not a specific division or official who oversees the list of properties in FEMA.

There were three recommendations that FEMA agreed to. These include creating a plan to strengthen FEMA’s management of these properties to ensure accuracy. It should also assign specific roles and responsibilities to manage these properties.

The report also recommended speeding up distribution of flood mitigation funding. It can take years for FEMA to award grants for properties that apply, and in the meantime, those properties can flood again. FEMA should also conduct more outreach to communities with large numbers of these properties to get them to participate in flood mitigation assistance programs, according to the report.

Finally, the report recommended promoting communities use of the increased cost of compliance repetitive loss program.

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