Flood Risk For Vermonters Is More Than What's On FEMA's Flood Maps

Sep 14, 2017

Karin Hardy says she never thought much about flood insurance before Tropical Storm Irene, but she learned a pretty tough lesson the Monday after the storm in 2011.

Hardy stands on a bridge over the Ball Mountain Brook in Jamaica, looking at a barren patch of land where her house stood before Tropical Storm Irene took it away.

"That was on a Sunday," she remembers as she talks about the violent floods that followed Tropical Storm Irene. "I went to work Monday morning and called my insurance company and found out pretty quick that I didn't have flood insurance. And I maybe was a little slow on the take at that moment because I kept asking, 'Well, what am I supposed to do?'"

EXPLORE: Tropical Storm Irene — Mapping The Money

Property owners all over the country primarily buy flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program, which is run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

And the program is built around the FEMA flood maps, which identify the neighborhoods where FEMA thinks floods are most likely to occur.

"I went to work Monday morning and called my insurance company and found out pretty quick that I didn't have flood insurance ... I kept asking, 'Well, what am I supposed to do?" — Karin Hardy

Hardy's house wasn't in the FEMA flood zone, even though Ball Mountain Brook ran a few hundred yards from her front porch.

And all across Vermont, the storm destroyed property that was outside of the FEMA flood zones.

READ: What Is Flood Insurance?

Ned Swanberg, a floodplain manager with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, says the FEMA maps are outdated and scientists today know a lot more about where floods occur and how climate change can affect storms and runoff.

"The program really doesn't address the kind of risks that we have, for the most part, in Vermont," Swanberg says.

And to really understand the disconnect between where FEMA thinks flooding will occur, and where it actually happens in Vermont, Swanberg says you have to take a close look at the flood maps.

Department of Environmental Conservation floodplain manager Ned Swanberg points to areas in a map of Jamaica that are prone to flooding. Many of the FEMA flood maps in Vermont are outdated and don't accurately convey the true threat of catastrophic floods.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Swanberg pulls out a flood map of Jamaica and points to an area on the map that FEMA identified. If Hardy's house was located there, her bank would have forced her to buy flood insurance.

But in Jamaica, and all across Vermont, flooding happens on steep hillsides and in smaller river valleys — not just along the rivers where FEMA has its flood zones.

Swanberg points to an area outside the flood zone, and he says that since Irene, the state's been working with communities to help them understand the real dangers of flooding.

"At this point, these houses have a level of risk that they might not be aware of," he says. "It's not really an area typically regulated by most communities. And it doesn't have flood insurance requirements that are placed upon lenders or homeowners, as such. They do have a risk, and it would be really smart to know the map and have flood insurance. And these kind of areas do experience damage."

"At this point, these houses have a level of risk that they might not be aware of." — Ned Swanberg, Department of Environmental Conservation

Vermont officials are watching the debate in Washington over the future of the insurance program, and they hope the feds can find the money to update the maps.

The National Flood Insurance Program offers property owners coverage at discounted rates, and that is one of the reasons why the program is about $25 billion in the red.

READ: The National Flood Insurance Program Is $25 Billion In Debt. Can Congress Save It?

In 2012, Congress wanted to raise the rates so the coverage reflected the true risk of flood-prone properties, but the plan was abandoned when homeowners complained about how high their premiums would have jumped.

The members of Vermont's congressional delegation say if the national program is updated, there will have to be protections for low-income residents.

In a joint statement, the delegation wrote: "As Congress works on reauthorizing FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program, our top priorities are to ensure Vermonters are protected from natural disasters like Tropical Storm Irene and to help families who cannot afford high flood insurance premiums ... Climate scientists are saying loud and clear that the extreme weather events that cause flooding are becoming more frequent because of global warming. That's why having a viable and stable National Flood Insurance Program is so critically important."

The National Flood Insurance Program is kind of the gateway for all of the disaster relief work and pre-flood mitigation work that goes on in Vermont, and all over the country.

"The assumption is, 'Well I'll just rebuild it and if it washes away someone will be there to bail me out.' And so it's probably time for a mindset change." — Chris Campany, Windham Regional Commission

When towns sign on to the insurance program, they receive extra funding support before and after a flood. The maps, when they're accurate, help the state prepare and respond to disasters. And the program, on paper at least, protects property owners if they sign on.

But Windham Regional Commission executive director Chris Campany says towns should start preparing now for what he says are sure to be significant changes to the national insurance program.

"The assumption is, 'Well, I'll just rebuild it and if it washes away someone will be there to bail me out,'" Campany says. "And so it's probably time for a mindset change. Let's make use of the programs we've got now, but looking down the road, towns should start setting aside some resources to mitigate for the damage that's likely to happen in the future."

Because, Campany says, regardless of what Congress comes up with to fix the National Flood Insurance Program, there's sure to be more floods and more damage in Vermont and across the country.