Hurricane Michael was a deadly reminder that many FEMA flood-risk maps are faulty

A study by coastal geologists shows that the hurricane destroyed 70% of Mexico Beach homes in a FEMA-map zone showing minmal risk of serious flooding

Mexico Beach destruction (Credit: Joe Raedle | Getty Images )
Mexico Beach destruction (Credit: Joe Raedle | Getty Images )

Extensive property damage from Hurricane Michael exposed ongoing problems with flood-risk maps produced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

FEMA flood maps put more than 200 homes in Mexico Beach in a zone with minimal flooding risk, but an analysis shows about 140 of these homes were demolished by storm surge from Hurricane Michael, which made its U.S. landfall in the small Gulf Coast town Oct 10.

An analysis by coastal geologists from Western Carolina University shows that flooding from the hurricane destroyed 70 percent of the 200-plus Mexico Beach homes in FEMA’s minimal flood-risk zone and severely damaged another 10 percent.

The Western Carolina University geologists estimate that the storm surge from Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach may have risen as much as 19 feet above sea level. (The National Weather Service hasn’t yet confirmed its measurement of the storm surge.)

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The Department of Homeland Security Inspector General last year reported that many FEMA maps are outdated or inaccurate and fail to reflect the true risk of catastrophic flooding.

The inspector general’s report cited culprits including a lack of uniform FEMA policies, poor financial management and lax oversight of contractors who handle the technical side of flood-risk mapping.

The National Flood Insurance Program uses FEMA flood maps in 22,000 communities nationwide to determine which properties must have flood insurance and to set rates.

Last February, a study in scientific journal Environmental Research Letters found that 40 million Americans face serious flood risk, about three times more than the number in FEMA flood maps.

The National Flood Insurance Program, which provides FEMA flood maps, has amassed $20.5 billion of debt. Congress reauthorized the program in July but only through Nov. 30. []Mike Seemuth