FEMAs

Homes are flooding outside FEMA’s 100-year flood zones, and racial inequality is showing through

Courtesy of Kevin T. Smiley, Louisiana State University

When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn’t always stay within the government’s flood risk zones.

New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood maps indicate.

Unfortunately, many of the people living in those properties have no idea that their homes are at risk until the floodwaters rise.

I am a sociologist who works on disaster vulnerability. In a new study, I looked at the makeup of communities in Houston that aren’t in the 100-year flood zone, but that still flood. What I found tells a story of racial disparities in the city. Research in other cities has shown similar flooding problems in predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

Poor stormwater infrastructure, expanding urbanization and limited flood mitigation efforts are a few of the reasons why.

Flooding outside the zones

About 15 million Americans live in FEMA’s current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.

In Greater Houston, however, 47% of claims made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don’t capture the full risk, now recommends that every household in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.

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Harris County, home to Houston, now recommends all households have flood insurance, whether they’re in a FEMA flood zone or not. AP Photo/David J. Phillip

New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk

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