FEMA Flood Data: 2.4 Million Damage Claims and Counting

FEMA has released millions of records from the National Flood Insurance Program, dating back to 1970.
Map of cumulative National Flood Insurance Program claims, 1970 through 2018.
The National Flood Insurance Program has seen over 2.4 million claims since 1970.
Credit: Created by the author using FEMA data.

It’s here! As anticipated, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has released tens of millions of records from the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). The data release includes over 50 million policy transactions from the past decade and information on 2.4 million damage claims dating back to 1970, representing nearly $70 billion in payments.

This is a treasure trove of data, which will be extremely valuable for research and policy. Releasing the data is a huge step toward helping scientists, decision-makers, and the public understand how the NFIP operates, where flood damages occur, and what the costs are to the nation. It’s a significant step forward for transparency of flood risk in the United States—something that NRDC, along with other organizations, has been calling on Congress and FEMA to provide for years. It seems that the flood of requests for information has finally broken through.

What is the biggest takeaway from the data? Flood insurance claims are piling up across the nation, even in areas far from the shore. The animation below shows the location of every NFIP claim in the contiguous United States, from 1970 through 2018.

Over time, dots representing individual claims trace the outlines of coasts and rivers. Areas subject to repeated flooding accumulate so many claims that entire regions appear as solid blue. And in recent years, more and more claims pop up in response to major flood disasters: 2005, 2008, 2012, 2017. Just based on the first half of the year, 2019 is likely to be one of them.

There’s a lot more to FEMA’s data release than what’s shown on this map, and there’s a lot of data crunching to be done. If you uncover a fascinating story in the data or create a cool visualization, please let us know! We’d love to see it.

Meanwhile, this isn’t the end of the story. There are other types of data—such as the numbers of repeatedly flooded properties, the level of program enforcement by participating communities, and rates of flood insurance uptake—that are necessary to complete the picture of flood damages and risk.

In particular, the newly released data doesn’t allow people to look up information about individual properties. To protect policyholders’ privacy, FEMA redacted addresses and full latitude/longitude coordinates before posting the data online. But people should have a right to know their home’s flood history, and prospective homebuyers and renters should be informed about flood-related risks. This is necessary to empower people to make informed decisions about where to live, whether to purchase flood insurance, and how to prepare for or mitigate against future flood damage.

Congress is currently discussing this exact issue. Yesterday, on June 12, the House Financial Services Committee’s markup of a flood insurance reform bill provided a potential fix to partially close this information gap. Chairwoman Maxine Waters offered an amendment to the proposed bill that would give current homeowners (as well as homebuyers under contract) the right to ask FEMA about a property’s flood risk, including its history of past flood damages and insurance payouts. The Committee unanimously passed the amended flood insurance reform bill last night.

However, neither the proposed reforms nor FEMA’s data release address flooded properties that have never been covered by an NFIP insurance policy. Despite decades of major flooding events, many Americans still go without flood insurance. And, unfortunately, the majority of states either have inadequate statutory or regulatory disclosure requirements concerning a property’s flood risks, or none at all. This means far too many Americans are never told whether the biggest financial investment of their lives has ever flooded or is likely to flood again.

While FEMA’s data release is a major milestone, the work is far from over. Hopefully, Congress clears the way to make even more flood-related data publicly available. As sea levels rise, storms increase, and flooding becomes more common, we need every piece of information at our disposal to stay ahead of the rising waters.

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