Flood maps still don’t match reality

Jill Robbins didn’t pay attention to flood maps until September’s rain pushed Sweetwater Creek into her home.

She looked afterward, when her house had become a mold-infested “$180,000 microbial spore on a concrete slab,” she said.

The Cobb County flood maps show Robbins’ Austell home sitting just outside of the high-risk area where flood insurance would have been a requirement of a mortgage.

Now Robbins is among those questioning the integrity of the flood maps, and whether those maps protected property owners as intended.

The flood maps are flawed, according to several storm water experts who saw their counties declared disaster areas this fall.

Despite a five-year, $32.7 million effort that ended last year to modernize the state’s maps, the maps still include information about rivers and terrain that is sometimes decades out of date.

No one knows whether better maps would have helped Robbins, given the unprecedented ferocity of September’s storms. But floodplain maps are both a critical tool in flood mitigation and a key driver behind who buys flood insurance.

Some property owners whose houses were ruined might have had insurance if the maps had been more up-to-date.

Georgia’s modernization project was part of a national push ordered by Congress and funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

As explained on a state Environmental Protection Division Web site, the state’s “high growth and development areas” had particularly outdated flood maps.

In the end, the modernization project produced more usable maps, digitizing them and adding aerial photos. But it did not systematically update the decades-old studies used to predict where floodwaters would go, even in areas where growth has radically changed terrain.

The new map for Cobb County, for instance, uses information from a 24-year-old study to establish the floodplain for Sweetwater Creek. The study predates Robbins’ subdivision by two decades.

The county studied floodplains for dozens of other creeks within its borders, but had not yet updated Sweetwater because that creek crosses county lines.

Changes as big as a new bridge or as small as a new culvert can change a river’s behavior during floods, altering elevation and flow and potentially expanding, shrinking or moving its floodplain. Development can increase runoff or improve drainage, changing the path of floods.

Nationally, the goal of updating decades-old flood maps has been elusive. New studies are expensive and complicated.

Both the state and FEMA said the project did what it could with the funding available. They said it was largely up to local governments to come up with new data about water flow and terrain.

But some metro area officials whose counties invested in new data said they provided detailed information that didn’t make it into the maps.

Officials in Newton, Paulding and Douglas counties, for instance, all said they submitted updated topographical information that wasn’t used.

Cobb County’s map is better than some.

That’s because the county rejected a draft 2005 map that had the same kind of outdated topographical information found in the Douglas, Paulding and Newton maps.

Still reeling from the 2005 flooding that followed Hurricane Dennis, Cobb County insisted the map be redone with fresh and accurate topographical data.

The county finally accepted its new map— this time with fresh topographical data — in December.

Data far outdated

Floodplain maps are important for several reasons, including planning and development. But for homeowners, their most critical role is insurance.

Anyone can buy flood insurance. But mortgage lenders require it for properties inside 100-year floodplains. The term means an area with a 1 percent chance of flooding any given year.

City and county planning departments can and do use their own data when making decisions about building near flood-prone areas.

But banks and lenders can only use the FEMA maps when deciding which properties require the added insurance.

Most FEMA maps were drafted in the 1970s or early 1980s, and are based on river, creek and topographical studies done then. Undeveloped areas often weren’t studied at all.

Piecemeal updates throughout the years left FEMA’s maps with few fans.

Officials charged with managing flood policy, such as Douglas County’s Johnny Barron, are keenly aware of the flaws.

“I will join the bandwagon in saying how horrible the FEMA maps are,” said Barron, storm water engineer with the Douglasville-Douglas County Water and Sewer Authority.

Douglas County’s FEMA maps were based on 1982 studies, and “that’s 29 years ago,” said Barron. “They don’t show most of the roads. They don’t show some of the streams. The rule is, and FEMA will tell you this, if a study is more than seven years old, it’s suspect. Because of development, flooding changes.”

But, he said, “I’d also like to greatly praise the state for trying to fix the maps.”

Funds limited updates

The state’s mapping program was always constrained by funding, said Collis Brown, the state EPD administrator in charge of the mapping project.

“Funding has its limitations,” Brown said. “That translates into how much detail the maps will include.”

The funding didn’t allow comprehensive new studies of waterways, he said.

Asked why the new maps in some cases did not include updated data collected by local governments, Brown said he didn’t know.

He questioned whether localities had submitted their data on time.

Douglas County, which got its official new map just a few weeks before September’s flood, spent nearly $2 million to collect information that could update the map’s basic data. The county submitted the information past an original deadline but had been given a nine-month extension to do so, said the county’s Barron. “Some of the information ended up in the map,” he said. “But the topographical data really didn’t. So you don’t know the land curves, the hilltops, the high points, the low points, the way you should.”

Barron said he didn’t know why the information wasn’t included.

He said the county didn’t reject the new map, as Cobb did, because it was still an improvement. “It wasn’t as good as we expected, but it was so much better than old one.”

Cobb County also initially got a new map with old topography. That’s the map the county rejected in 2005.

“I don’t know whose fault it was,” said Cobb storm water division manager Bill Higgins. “I don’t want to point fingers at this point.”

In Newton County, where locally-produced topographical data also wasn’t used, the result was a map that failed to register residential development that had moved one waterway’s floodplain. The waterway didn’t flood in September, but its mapped floodplain line doesn’t match the river.

Paulding County also submitted new data that didn’t get used, said county engineer Bruce Coyle. But Coyle also cautioned against making too much of that, in light of the recent flood.

No map could have predicted it, he said.

“FEMA has been calling, trying to get a bunch of information to try to figure out why their maps were so wrong,” Coyle said.

“I tell them it’s not the maps. The maps are fine. It was an act of God. We had 24 inches of rain in 24 hours.”

Studies continue

FEMA is now funding a new round of studies designed to further improve the state’s flood maps.

In Cobb, meanwhile, plans to study Sweetwater Creek are moving forward. The county, which has spent millions studying waterways inside its border, will study Sweetwater in cooperation with other counties in which the stream runs.

Cobb’s Higgins said a new study may or may not change floodplain boundaries.

He said he doubts residents will trust a new map anyway, “given what they have experienced.”

Rollins, the Austell homeowner, says a better map might have helped her. Roughly 50 yards separate her home from the mandatory insurance zone.

Rollins acknowledged that she could have bought insurance anyway. She said she thought the Hurricane Dennis flood was as bad as things got. It reached her yard, not her house.

Her family has moved, following her husband’s work. They were renting out the Austell house when the flood hit.

Now, with the bank saying she has to keep up her $1,600 monthly mortgage payments, she’s out of options, she said.

“We’re stuck.”