A National Research Council report released Wednesday urges the federal government to take a new approach to how flood insurance and flood risk for communities behind river and hurricane protection levees are calculated.
The report, “Levees and the National Flood Insurance Program: Improving Policies and Practices,” recommends that the Federal Emergency Management Agency take a “risk analysis” approach that accounts for levees that meet federal certification standards, those that don’t meet the standards but still provide protection and the risks associated with flooding if those levees fail or are overtopped.
“We’re on track for $8 billion per year in flood losses,” said Gerald Galloway Jr., chairman of the committee that wrote the report and professor of engineering at the University of Maryland. “And with climate change, we can expect it to rise.”
Galloway said a certified levee is one that provides protection for what is called a 100-year storm, which means a storm that has a 1 percent chance in any given year to occur.
FEMA requested the NRC report to look at how all levees are handled in the National Flood Insurance Program, in part because damage due to levees either failing or being overtopped has increased in recent years. Property owners behind FEMA-certified levees are not required to participate in the NFIP.
Changes in how many people would be required to buy insurance started when FEMA started digitizing maps in 2003 and found that many previously certified levees no longer met the standard. That meant people living behind those levees who had federally backed mortgages in the 100-year flood plain had to buy flood insurance as if there were no levee in place.
“That upset a lot of people,” said Windell Curole, general manager of the South Lafourche Levee District. “The parish said we challenge these maps because it didn’t reflect reality.”
Galloway said the reaction was similar across the country and with pressure from Congress, FEMA set up a program to give these areas at least partial credit for having levees. That program, “Levee Analysis and Mapping Procedure” (LAMP), is ready for some pilot programs to start, he said.
However, the NRC report recommends that FEMA scrap the LAMP solution and instead develop a risk-analysis method that considers all risks of living behind all levees. The report says property owners and local, state and federal officials would have a better idea of the risks and how to mitigate them and be able to communicate more effectively on the local level.
Curole said he and others in Lafourche Parish have been suggesting these moves for years.
“Let’s get the best reality we can. The computer model doesn’t get to that reality,” Curole said. “If you don’t face the risk, you can’t deal with it properly.”
In the past, the idea was to control floods, Curole said, but there has been movement around the world toward an approach that looks more at flood risk management by recognizing that there is no guaranteed flood protection, just risk reduction. The report also says the associated financial risk could be handled differently by better defining the risks in different areas and basing insurance costs on those risks.
Calls and emails to FEMA’s national news desk office were not returned by deadline Wednesday.