USA: Off the map: The problem with FEMA's flood maps for the East Coast

Pacific Standard Magazine

By Annie Avilés


Today, 88 percent of the Maine coast is privately owned and, according to the Island Institute in Rockland, less than 20 of the state's more than 5,000 miles of coastline remain working waterfront. Much of that private property is vacation homes, used a few months of the year. In fact, according to the 2010 United States Census of Housing, nearly 16 percent of Maine houses are second homes, more than five times the national rate, and the highest rate in the U.S. But while longtime Mainers may grumble about "summer people," the economy soon adjusted to the new reality. At the very least, more visitors meant more tourism dollars. Even in towns like Stonington, where the fishing industry hung on and even thrived, Maine's coastal economies grew ever more dependent on tourists and the industries devoted to serving them. The "Vacationland" slogan adopted for the state during the cash-strapped Depression years had become a stark reality.

So when the American housing crisis hit a decade ago, it was particularly devastating. The collapse brought a huge drop, not only in the building and real-estate industries, but also in tourism. Most coastal towns were deeply affected—and were just starting to get their footing again after years of slow recovery when the redrawing of the FEMA maps was announced. After 15 years living away, I first heard about the plan a few months before moving back and was caught off guard by how political and contentious the process became and how it seemed to highlight the state's ever-widening income gap. FEMA began its remapping along the southern part of the state, then gradually continued northeast. Places like Portland, Cape Elizabeth, and Scarborough have some of the highest property values in the state, and residents there quickly hired consultants to battle the changes. They succeeded in having the whole approval process for southern Maine postponed so maps could be evaluated in even greater detail. Today, four years later, the maps there remain on hold, with the older, less restrictive maps still in effect—staving off new costs and economic impacts, at least for now.

Meanwhile, FEMA continued up the coast. Updated, more restrictive maps were released, and in many cases approved, for other parts of the coast. Some of those towns have also contested their maps and halted the process. Some have not. Because the mapping process hinged not only on environmental science, but on who could afford the costly fight, it essentially created two competing maps: a more detailed, more accurate version for people with more money, and another, likely less accurate version of the coastline for those with less.


Everyone I spoke to—experts, state officials, residents, real-estate agents—agreed that reading the new FEMA maps in any detail without expertise and expensive software is difficult, and that contesting them without expertise and expensive software is impossible. And FEMA wasn't broadcasting the fact that many maps contained errors, at least in part because it couldn't know exactly if and where errors had occurred until a private consultant was hired by a town or individual. (Again, FEMA disputes this: "Throughout the flood-map update process, FEMA applies a rigorous eight-step quality review process, which includes independent reviews," it said in its statement.) So to be "on the docket," as Kathleen Billings [Stonington's town manager] had put it, town officials not only had to identify potential problems on their own, but they had to allocate time to consider their options and money to hire experts to make corrections.


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