President's Climate Resiliency Actions Include Risk-Mapping Tool

Today, President Obama announced a series of climate preparedness initiatives aimed at strengthening the nation’s efforts to prepare for sea level rise and more frequent extreme weather events. Among this array of initiatives is a $13.1 million mapping project, called the 3D Elevation Program (3DEP), launched by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and other federal agencies to develop advanced three-dimensional mapping data of the United States. The USGS claims the 3DEP could, among other things, benefit policyholders under the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) as it would make it easier for communities to update its flood maps due to the availability of this enhanced data. As a result of this updated information, NFIP-participating communities can become better prepared for the escalating flooding risks facing the nation as a result of climate change.  

Today’s announcement from President Obama brings very encouraging news because it shows just how serious the White House is in helping the nation become more resilient to extreme weather and increased flooding. NRDC is especially supportive of the 3D mapping initiative, which would allow states and local communities to develop strategies to avoid or mitigate the effects of climate change-induced natural disasters.

However, one important thing is missing from the series of climate change actions announced today, and that is an effort to toughen the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)’s flood mapping responsibilities. FEMA develops flood maps, which are supposed to inform communities about the areas most at risk of flooding – such information can then allow homeowners to make informed and smart decisions about where to live. Currently, FEMA’s flood maps are not required to take into account projected sea level rise and other future impacts of climate change on flood risk and instead only rely on historical data as predictors of future risks. In light of the nation’s growing vulnerability to flooding, a reliance on past flood records will almost certainly lead to an underestimation of communities’ flood risks. 

We’ve already seen the repercussions of having inaccurate flood maps in the case of Hurricane Sandy. FEMA’s flood maps for New York City had not been updated for nearly 30 years when Sandy hit. Before the storm, many communities were lulled into a false sense of security by maps that showed their homes to be located outside the danger zone; but, after the storm, tens of thousands of the city’s residents were left to deal with the subsequent massive destruction as they were unprepared to protect themselves from the disastrous event.

In order for communities to enhance their resilience to future flooding and undertake appropriate mitigation measures, they must have a complete and accurate understanding of both their current and future risks. Accounting for anticipated sea level rise and projected increases in the frequency and severity of future storms and precipitation events is the only way to ensure that maps can reflect the true extent of a community’s flood risk.

While we commend the federal government for launching the 3DEP, which will hopefully speed up the process by which FEMA flood maps are updated, the President should aim a climate change action directly at FEMA that would require the agency to incorporate climate change impacts when updating its maps. Absent such consideration, communities across the nation will continue to live in harm’s way and face repetitive flood losses.