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Michael Grimm Testimony to Committee on Science, Space and Technology

Release Date:
February 27, 2020

TESTIMONY

OF

MICHAEL GRIMM

ASSISTANT ADMINISTRATOR FOR RISK MANAGEMENT

FEDERAL INSURANCE AND MITIGATION ADMINISTRATION

FEDERAL EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY

 

BEFORE

THE

COMMITTEE ON SCIENCE, SPACE, AND TECHNOLOGY

SUBCOMMITTEE ON INVESTIGATIONS AND OVERSIGHT

SUBCOMMITTEE ON ENVIRONMENT

 

UNITED STATES HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

WASHINGTON, D.C.

 

Submitted

By

Federal Emergency Management Agency

500 C Street SW

Washington, D.C. 20472

 

February 27, 2020

 


Good morning, Chairman Foster and Chairwoman Sherrill, Ranking Members Norman and
Marshall, and Members of the Committee. My name is Michael Grimm, and I am the Assistant
Administrator for Risk Management for the Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration
(FIMA). I would like to thank you for the opportunity to discuss how the Federal Emergency
Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) oversee the
National Flood Mapping Program (NFMP) and the production of flood hazard and flood risk
information.

Introduction to the National Flood Mapping Program

As millions of American families have unfortunately experienced first-hand, flooding is the most
common and costly natural disaster in the United States. Ninety-eight percent of counties across
our country have experienced a flooding event, and flood waters continue to pose a greater
potential for damage than any other natural disaster. Moreover, in the last decade, floods alone
have caused over $155 billion in property damages and they continue to account for the majority
of federally declared disasters.

FEMA’s mission is helping the American people before, during, and after disasters. One of the
most effective and fiscally responsible ways to begin is by building a culture of preparedness
before these disasters take place. Developing resilient communities ahead of an incident reduces
both the loss of life and economic disruption, and every dollar invested in mitigation is estimated
to save the American taxpayer six dollars in future spending.

Considering the frequency and high costs of flooding, a key component of widespread
preparedness is to help communities better understand the risks posed by floodwaters and to
provide them with the information they need to make informed decisions about prudent land
development practices and the adoption of building codes. Working in concert with the tools
provided by Congress in the National Flood Mapping Program (NFMP) as part of the Biggert-
Waters 2012 Reform Act, FIMA seeks to both educate and incentivize our partners to increase
their investments in pre-disaster mitigation. The most utilized regulatory tool to help
communities manage their flooding risks is the Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM), which I will
refer to interchangeably throughout the testimony as FIRMs, flood maps, or just maps.

FIRMs are only as good as the data they are based upon, and FEMA works to ensure the
methods employed in developing flood maps are scientifically and technically appropriate.
FEMA confirms that flood hazard analysis and mapping standards are updated, published,
vetted, and peer-reviewed annually to stay aligned with current best practices. The FIRM is built
collaboratively with state, local, tribal and territorial communities, and their partners to ensure
local knowledge, areas of concern, and data sources are incorporated. Ultimately NFIP-
participating communities create, adopt and own the FIRM and are responsible for working with
FEMA to keep them up to date.

What are FIRMs used for?

As the most prevalent type of flood map in the United States, FIRMs are used to determine flood
insurance premiums as well as a basis for local floodplain management and development
decisions. The maps are useful for flood mitigation planning activities – including the
establishment of zoning, land-use, and building standards. Local adoption of minimum
standards has resulted in $100 Billion in avoided losses over the last 40 years. Without complete
or accurate flood maps, local officials face significant difficulties in guiding development away
from the most flood prone areas and ensuring that development is properly built to protect lives
and property. Similarly, the information within flood maps also provides significant benefit to
the private sector, including mortgage lenders, mortgage insurers, mortgage securities, and real
estate investors, mortgage securities, and real estate investors.

With FEMA’s assistance, more than 22,000 communities have developed, adopted, and taken
ownership of their FIRMs as participants in the NFIP, representing more than 5 million flood
insurance policies that provide over $1.3 trillion in coverage. History has demonstrated
repeatedly that individuals, communities, and businesses that transfer their flood risk through
insurance recover faster and more fully after a disaster. If an individual does not have the full
value of their home or belongings within their savings account, insurance will help them to fill
that financial void when a disaster occurs. Furthermore, while insurance benefits those directly
affected by a disaster, it also reduces the need for federal disaster assistance and lowers the
overall costs for American taxpayers. But when direct federal disaster assistance is needed,
FIRMs play an essential role beyond preparedness to support FEMA response and recovery, such
as when staging disaster operations.

Leveraging Technology and Partnerships to Achieve Efficiencies

Since the inception of the NFIP in 1969, our Nation has invested approximately $10.6 billion in
inflation adjusted dollars for flood hazard mapping. These cartographic tools have consistently
improved both community planning and the construction of vital infrastructure lifelines such as
highways, bridges, and water treatment facilities.

Although the type of data needed to create dependable maps has remained relatively consistent
over the last five decades, the tools and technology used to gather or share this information has
changed substantially. Within the past 20-years, paper-based flood maps have become digitally
accessible to millions of Americans. Traditional surveying methodologies of the 20th century
have been replaced with more accurate and cost-saving techniques. For example, the 3-
Dimensional Elevation Program (3DEP) managed by the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS)
National Geospatial Program collects Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) data, allowing
FEMA and its state, local, tribal and territorial partners to map flood hazard zones with
increasing accuracy by measuring landscapes with laser-based surveying methodologies from
aircraft. Many federal agencies contribute funding for LiDAR data acquisition, including NOAA
and FEMA. FEMA has invested over $190 million in LiDAR since FY2014 through the 3DEP
program.

FEMA has also collaborated with NOAA to incorporate bathymetry studies of submarine
topography which play a critical role in forming a more comprehensive understanding of coastal
flooding risks. Both LiDAR and bathymetry data are needed to model complex coastal flooding
scenarios. Furthermore, FEMA also utilizes NOAA/National Weather Service Atlas 14 data for
the hydrologic modeling used for riverine flood studies.

Another way in which FEMA has improved the production of flood maps through a Base Level
Engineering (BLE) initiative, which uses automated flood modeling of more rural riverine
floodplain areas where high quality topographic information exists. Because riverine flood
studies represent the single largest cost variable, the use of BLE could become a significant cost
savings initiative for the program.

Throughout the process of creating FIRMs, FEMA works closely with state, local, tribal and
territorial communities and their partners to ensure local knowledge, areas of concern, and data
sources are integrated into mapping studies and flood maps. FEMA encourages community
officials to submit scientific or technical data in order to support a local revision to these flood
maps to leverage partner contributions to enhance flood mapping projects. As an example, the
Cooperating Technical Partners (CTP) Program is one way in which FEMA builds partnerships
with participating NFIP communities, regional agencies, state agencies, tribes, and universities
that have the interest and capability to become more active participants in the flood hazard
mapping program.

Maintaining and Expanding the Nation’s Flood Hazard Information

The modernization of flood mapping techniques has made digital mapping more adaptable and
easier to update and reflect natural changes to landscapes or improved floodplain management
techniques. As conditions change, flood maps require maintenance. It is necessary to
consistently work with local community partners and reassess the maps approximately every five
years to ensure that individual flood insurance rates are accurate and that NFIP communities are
provided with the critical information they need to pursue responsible economic development.
With current resources we must prioritize which maps need to be updated in accordance with the
highest risks or need, and work with our state, local, tribal and territorial partners to begin the
cyclical process anew.

While maintaining current flood maps is critical, we are still far from completing the initial job
of mapping the entire Nation. There are many counties and communities throughout the Nation
identified as not having flood maps at all. FEMA, in coordination with state, local, tribal and
territorial governments, has historically prioritized limited mapping resources for areas with the
greatest population levels and flood insurance policies on the assumption that these areas
represent the highest risk. While this approach has produced accurate and detailed maps in
counties and communities with higher population levels, the unfortunate consequence is that
areas of potential future development remain unmapped. Furthermore, there are roughly 3,300
communities with maps that are over 15 years old. This is not to say that each of these older
maps have limited utility. While FEMA reassesses FIRMs every five years, the age of a flood
map is not the only indicator of the map’s usefulness. For areas where natural and man-made
features have not changed, the actual risk of a one percent annual chance of flooding may remain
consistent over a long timeframe.


Additionally, our understanding of flood risk can change with advances in modeling and
technology and as we learn from recent flooding events. FEMA and our partners are looking at
ways to better leverage knowledge and technological advancements to drive a more accurate and
comprehensive understanding of flood risk across the Nation.

Changing Conditions and Current Data Concerns

Despite the progress we have made in modernizing the flood mapping process, there are still
ample opportunities for continuous improvement. One of the most notable opportunities for
improvement concerns the timeline of production for new flood maps. Although due process
and careful deliberation is vital for ensuring both a map’s accuracy and the buy-in of local
partners, the extended processes necessary to comply with current regulations can result in a
situation in which maps have technically expired by the time they are approved and publicly
available. A new flood map requires seven years on average to complete, and that juxtaposes
present statutes that mandate FEMA reassessment of flood maps every five years for them to
qualify as current.

Another data concern often raised regarding current flood maps is the lack of consideration about
future weather patterns and changing coastal conditions. These are important factors for a
variety of reasons, as exemplified by the acceleration of daily tidal flooding in more than 25
Atlantic and Gulf Coast cities in addition to communities along the Great Lakes. These trends
are expected to continue. Disasters are becoming more costly. Direct average annual flood losses
have quadrupled from approximately $4 billion per year in the 1980’s to roughly $17 billion per
year between 2010 and 2018. With 39 percent of Americans now living in coastal areas, our
exposure to costly flood related damages has increased; however, simply increasing distance
from large bodies of water is no guarantee of protection from flood damage or changing weather
patterns. These trends may also be found far from coastlines and well within the American
heartland. For example, historic flooding in 2019 due to pluvial (rain) and fluvial (riverine)
changes impacted millions of families across mid-western and southern states.

In 2015, the congressionally established Technical Mapping and Advisory Council (TMAC)
provided recommendations through the Future Conditions Risk Assessment and Modeling
Report. The TMAC recommended FEMA produce non-regulatory products and information that
incorporates future flood hazard conditions. We fully support the TMAC’s recommendations,
and we are looking for ways to implement them with our federal partners such as the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and USGS.

While FIRMs do not currently reflect the ways in which flood risks may change in the future,
FEMA strongly encourages communities to incorporate future conditions and information into
its projects and plans. Addressing future risks, such as those posed by extreme weather events, is
key to FEMA’s mission. Wherever possible, FEMA brings data to bear and work in support of
state, local, tribal, and territorial needs and priorities. By addressing future risks, FEMA’s
partners are best prepared for future extreme weather events and can bounce back faster at the
individual and community level.

FEMA has conducted several pilot studies on sea level rise and is working to identify any
specific research gaps to inform the design of additional future conditions pilot projects.
Presently, FEMA is coordinating with New York City through the CTP Program to pilot non-
regulatory flood products that address future flooding scenarios for the boroughs. The intent is
to ensure that today’s designs address future risks by integrating sea level rise data into building
code requirements and for floodplain management. FEMA is also working to identify best
practices for developing products and tools useful in communicating risk around future
conditions to communities.

Additionally, in 2015, FEMA released the State Mitigation Plan Review Guide that serves as
FEMA’s official policy on the natural hazard mitigation planning requirements. The guide asks
states to consider the probability of future hazard events, including changing future conditions,
development patterns, and population demographics. The Guide clarifies that the probability of
future hazard events must include considerations of changing future conditions, including the
effects of long-term changes in weather patterns and climate on the identified hazards.

Moreover, in 2019, FEMA and its partners introduced a new initiative titled “the National
Mitigation Investment Strategy”, in close coordination with experts across governmental
agencies, academia, and non-governmental organizations. The National Mitigation Investment
Strategy represents a robust interagency and cross-government planning effort to develop a
single national strategy for advancing hazard mitigation investments to reduce future risks such
as those posed by changing coastal patterns and extreme weather events. FEMA will continue to
work with its partners across all levels of government to strengthen partnerships and access new
sources of scalable capabilities.

The Future of Flood Maps and Flood Risk Data

As stewards of taxpayer dollars, we routinely assess our programs, policies, and actions to ensure
we operate effectively and efficiently to meet the needs and interests of our stakeholders while
fulfilling our statutory requirements. Improving the production and scope of FIRMs within the
context of changing conditions is an important aspect of this strategic priority in order to increase
the Nation’s understanding of flood risk and the actions that can be taken to reduce it. Through
an initiative known as the Future of Flood Risk Data (FFRD), FEMA aims to provide a more
comprehensive and dynamic picture of the country’s flood hazards that can serve as a basis for a
range of outcome-oriented regulatory and non-regulatory products.

To begin, FEMA is exploring ways to provide graduated flood risk analyses a more nuanced set
of information that would enhance our understanding of probabilities across a broader range of
flood scenarios that is beyond the current practice of binary risk assessment. Presently, FIRMs
are primarily representative of a single flood hazard and the one-percent-annual-chance of
flooding. As a result, FIRMs may give a false impression to communities outside of the one
percent annual chance flood plain that they have little to no flood risk. In just the past 3 years,
over 40% of claims have been for properties that are either not mapped or mapped outside of the
SFHA. Furthermore, FIRMs do not always account for residual risks posed by areas behind
dams or levees, and an improved understanding is needed of the nation’s levees. In recent years,
FEMA has been working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to improve data in
the National Levee Database (NLD), which will ultimately support a graduated approach to levee
risk. Graduated risk information could more effectively inform decision-making and drive
actions to mitigate flood risk. For example, a better understanding of this graduated risk can
support our partners’ planning efforts for very high-risk areas such as those affected by regular
tidal flooding that cannot be adequately depicted by the current binary representation of the flood
hazard.

The transition from binary to graduated risk analysis is key component of FFRD. We also
believe the future depends on three other elements: continuing to ensure a significant and
appropriate role for the private sector and state, local, tribal, and territorial entities; increasing
access to flood hazard data for a range of stakeholders; and modernizing the management and
delivery of flood risk data through our IT infrastructure and new technologies.

Conclusion

In conclusion, flooding continues to be the most common and costly natural disaster in the
United States, with the greatest damage potential of natural hazards worldwide. FIRMs and
flood risk information have helped communities, households, and businesses reduce flood risk,
support flood risk analysis, expand sound floodplain management practices across the country,
and support insurance policies that reduce the financial burden to survivors when floods occur.

Although we remain far from completing the initial job of mapping the Nation, FEMA is
continuously exploring how to streamline our mapping efforts and shift from the paradigm of
binary risk assessment to delivering a more comprehensive and graduated approach of managing
flood risk across a range of probabilities, including future conditions.

The framework for flood mapping as prescribed by the National Flood Mapping Program
(NFMP) in the Biggert-Waters 2012 Reform Act recognizes many of these existing needs.
While many of the mapping requirements from 2012 are still being addressed, FEMA is
exploring ways to leverage new technologies to provide flood information more efficiently,
accurately, and consistently across the Nation through the FFRD initiative. In moving towards
this future, FEMA must continue to bolster partnerships with other federal agencies whose
expertise is essential in building a broader national understanding of flood risk. FEMA must also
continue to partner with private sector, and state, local, tribal, and territorial stakeholders.
Collectively, these partnerships will ensure that FEMA is leveraging the latest data and
technologies and being a good steward of the taxpayer dollar, while better serving the diverse
needs of our citizens. Flood risk reduction is most effective when locally implemented, state
prioritized, and federally supported. This is exemplified by the $100 Billion in avoided losses
associated with local adoption of the minimum flood standards over the past 40 years.

Thank you again for affording me the opportunity to speak with you today about these programs
and Flood Insurance Rate Maps. I look forward to answering any questions you may have.

 

 

 

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