How FEMA’s Risk MAP Program Helps Multi-Hazard Risk Mitigation

12008_schultz How FEMA's Risk MAP Program Helps Multi-Hazard Risk Mitigation REQUIRED READING: The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has articulated a well-defined vision behind its new Risk Mapping, Assessment and Planning (Risk MAP) initiative: to deliver quality data that helps increase public awareness and reduce risks to both life and property. Building upon the flood hazard data and maps produced during FEMA's Flood Map Modernization program (Map Mod), Risk MAP has several key goals:

  • Form a solid foundation for risk assessment by addressing gaps in existing hazard data;
  • Create a measurable reduction of current and future vulnerability through an increase in public awareness;
  • Help communities effectively engage in risk-based mitigation planning; and
  • Enhance FEMA's overall digital platform.

Risk MAP builds upon Map Mod not only to provide state, regional, tribal and local communities with better access to more accurate and up-to-date flood hazard maps, but also to provide a framework for multi-hazard risk analysis, communications and mitigation strategies. Once fully implemented, Risk MAP will play an important part in FEMA's overall natural disaster risk mitigation strategy.

Map Mod marked an important milestone by transforming the bulk of the flood-hazard-mapping inventory to 21st century digital technology. It was also very successful in restoring confidence in the reliability of floodplain boundaries and improving the underlying engineering data used to create Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs). In addition, the program saw the release of effective maps or preliminary maps for 94% of the population, and new effective digital maps for 77% of the population – a number that should reach the mid-80 percentile by the end of fiscal year 2012.

FEMA understands that the dynamic nature of floodplains requires an ongoing effort to maintain and refresh the underlying engineering data depicted on flood maps, and the agency has committed to do so. In fact, a 2009 FEMA report noted that part of the success of the Map Mod program was establishing a foundation for easier information depiction and distribution of the mapped flood hazard.

The agency points to three principal factors that drive the need for updated flood hazard analyses:

Physical changes.
These can include either man-made changes (e.g., new bridges, culverts, levees in the floodplain, development that may influence watershed or coastal flooding characteristics) or natural developments (e.g., erosion, wildfires).

Climate changes. These include such factors as changing rainfall data, hurricane patterns/intensities.

Engineering methodology changes.
These involve improved computer models, a better understanding of the physics that govern storm surges and major flooding events.

Now that a majority of the current map inventory is in a digital format, physical map revisions can target only those specific areas where hazards have changed or where the underlying engineering data no longer supports existing conditions, as opposed to county-wide revisions that are large-scale wholesale revisions of entire geographic areas of a county. This is a major improvement in terms of data maintenance and a significant savings of both time and money.  Â

A multi-hazard framework

According to FEMA's fiscal year 2011 report to Congress, the agency manages several programs that assess the impact of natural hazards in order to develop strategies for reducing risk as part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's objective to ‘strengthen nationwide preparedness and mitigation against natural disasters.’ Risk MAP falls under that umbrella of programs.

Risk MAP provides communities with flood information and tools they can use to enhance their mitigation plans and take action to better protect their citizens. It builds upon the success of Map Mod by providing more accurate flood maps, risk assessment tools and consumer and professional outreach. This successor program is ideal to manage risk associated with multiple hazards, helping government officials improve mitigation plans and strengthen local ability to make informed decisions regarding risk reduction.

While the program focuses primarily on flood hazards, Risk MAP actually serves to establish a framework for multi-hazard risk analysis, communications and mitigation strategies. Once in place, functions such as prioritization of resources based on risk and need, delivery of multi-hazard risk assessments and mitigation planning can be replicated across multiple hazard types.

Under the Risk MAP program, FEMA provides direction, policy and guidance to each of its 10 regional offices to enable consistent implementation nationwide. Each of the regional offices implement Risk MAP at the local level through close collaboration with state, regional, tribal and local communities, which in turn, can use the enhanced hazard data to make more informed decisions regarding risk to the benefit of constituents. Â Â Â

Risk MAP focuses primarily on the following three areas:

  • Significant riverine flood hazard data update needs;
  • Coastal flood hazard mapping; and
  • Areas impacted by levees.

The riverine flood hazard mapping process will be a significant deviation from the time-honored norm. The new program will move away from its traditional community -based mapping strategy and instead base future revisions on a watershed approach, identifying revision areas and mapping updates on the full reach of individual watersheds, regardless of community boundaries.

The Risk MAP product suite will be further augmented with flood depth and analysis grids that illustrate not only where the floodplain lies, but also the depth of flooding that can occur on an order of magnitudes, along with identification of changes since the previous revision. When the new, updated maps are released, the additional information will help communities better understand the improved data. The additional mapping products will be available for all focus areas.

Through the Risk MAP program, FEMA intends to update the nation's coastal Flood Insurance Studies and FIRMs and, where appropriate, establish new FIRMs in previously unmapped populated areas. The study areas will be identified and prioritized based on mapping needs, flood risk, community and state cost share, and cost efficiencies so the areas most in need are accommodated as efficiently and quickly as possible.

FEMA anticipates that funding will be required through fiscal year 2013 to initiate all coastal updates. Significant progress has already been made, with initiated updates accounting for 75% of the nation's coastline miles.

In collaboration with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA has inventoried in excess of 25,000 miles of levee systems nationwide. Although FEMA is granted the authority to map appropriate zone designations for levee systems, it must rely on federal, state and local agencies, as well as private levee owners, to provide the required data and documentation to certify a levee as ‘accredited’ as defined in 44 Code of Federal Regulations Section 65.10.

Because of the concern generated among communities and their representatives in Congress, 224 engineering and mapping projects currently remain on hold due to levee mapping issues. The interested parties believe that too broad an approach was taken when determining an area's flood risk and that it did not reflect the hazard reduction some non-accredited levees might afford. A new, cost-effective, repeatable and flexible approach proposed by FEMA is currently being considered.

FEMA will continue to work with stakeholders to improve existing risk data and fully engage local communities to ensure development of sound, practical hazard mitigation plans. Once Risk MAP is fully implemented, a more knowledgeable public infrastructure from the national to the local level can take action to reduce flood risk, and the Risk MAP framework and data can be used to reduce exposure presented by other risks.

Practical applications

In simple terms, the greatly expanded portfolio of data and mapping information from FEMA allows the flood determination industry to go far beyond the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision regarding the need for flood insurance for a particular property. Now, lenders, servicers, communities, insurance providers and others can also receive valuable information that allows them to better quantify the degree of risk associated with flood events. For example, if half the loans in a servicing portfolio require flood insurance – meaning they are in a 100-year floodplain – servicers will be able to go a step further to stratify the magnitude of risk that is inherent in that part of their portfolio.

For servicers, the ability to understand things such as how deep water is likely to get in various areas of a floodplain – which impacts how seriously properties are likely to be impacted in the event of a flood – and even to predict the likely restoration costs means they are much better informed about the overall risk in their portfolio. The more severe the potential flood damage to a property, the greater the likelihood that borrowers may leave the property behind, or become financially stressed due to their loss as well as damage to the entire area where they live and perhaps work.

These expanded risk assessment capabilities combine the possibility of a flood event with the potential economic loss, as well as other threats such as public safety and environmental hazards. Instead of only being able to identify the percentage of homes in a portfolio that require flood insurance, servicers can determine their risk at an even more granular level to evaluate what percent is at very high risk versus medium to low risk.Â

Ultimately, FEMA is delivering an impressive range of both existing and new information that will allow the flood determination industry to provide much deeper insights into property-loss risk associated with flood events. Potential recipients of that information, such as servicers, will need to consider how they will take advantage of this information to better manage portfolio risk.

With access to a more comprehensive view, servicers will have more information about the flood risks in their portfolios than ever before, giving them the opportunity to make decisions that are much better aligned with their tolerance for risk.

Michael Hanson is senior vice president at LPS National Flood, a Lender Processing Services company. He can be reached at


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