Two weeks ago, Coastal Connection received this inquiry from a
reader in Fort Myers, Florida: "Do you have any information
regarding any adjustments that are anticipated to the FIRM maps in
Florida, specifically in Sarasota County?"
We didn't, so we contacted Desiree Companion, a Certified
Floodplain Manager with unincorporated Sarasota County whose duties
include community outreach and education about flood plain mapping.
Companion told us that indeed, Sarasota County, like most other
flood-prone communities throughout the United States, is
participating in the nationwide effort by the Federal Emergency
Management Agency (FEMA) to replace the old system of paper-based
flood zone maps with new "Digital Flood Insurance Rate Maps," or
Throughout the country, said Companion, FEMA's old paper maps
are overdue for an upgrade. Many of them have not been updated for
many years, even as conditions on the ground have changed. Even
when they were new, she said, the margin of error of some older
maps was typically as great as 250 feet.
Modern aerial mapping methods, using laser measurements and
computer modeling, have created the opportunity for much more
accurate maps, while Web technology has provided the means to make
those maps readily available to the public. From 2004 to 2008, FEMA
worked to collect and organize new geographic map data. Now, the
plan is to present all the new data in the form of a national DFIRM
database, accessible through the Internet. FEMA's website publishes
details of the agency’s "Risk MAP"
Publication schedules for the revised digital maps vary from
place to place. In Sarasota County, Companion said, provisional
maps reflecting new topographic data for Sarasota County will be
ready for public review and comment by May 31, 2010. After review,
the on-line, searchable version of the new map should be published
in 2011. The Sarasota County website has posted a status
report on the effort.
But throughout the country, said Companion, FEMA's national web
pages already let the public view the latest official flood rate
maps and learn the status of flood map revisions for any address.
FloodSmart.gov, the official site of the National Flood
Insurance Program (NFIP), you can check the schedule for the flood
map revision process in any ZIP code. And for a quick report on the
official flood risk for any given location, you can enter the
address in the box on the left-hand side of the page (remember to
check whether the property is commercial or residential).
FEMA has stopped selling paper copies of its old Flood Insurance
Rate Maps. Instead, the agency now has an online "Map
Service Center" where you can look up the digital versions and
print what the agency calls a "FIRMette." However, most searches
don't turn up one of the new high-tech interactive digital maps.
Instead, what you'll probably see when you enter an address is a
scan of an old paper map.
Currently, a scan of the most recent paper map
is the likely result of an online search of FEMA’s Map
Service Center. This example was the result of a search for the
White Elephant Pub, on the water at 1855 Gulf Boulevard, Englewood,
But online scans of old paper maps are a temporary mid-point in
the transition to digital flood maps. Within a few years, FEMA's
servers will be displaying what some localities already provide:
updated digitized topographic data stored in Geographic Information
System (GIS) format, and displayed as an interactive map. Charlotte
County, Florida, for example, has an interactive map server in
place at www.ccgis.com. When we
searched for the White Elephant Pub by the water on Gulf Boulevard
in Englewood, Florida, Charlotte County served up this photo map,
complete with a link to county property records.
Some localities already provide updated digitized
topographic data stored in Geographic Information System
(GIS) format. This interactive version from Charlotte County Fla.
displays the area around the White Elephant Pub (red area) on Gulf
The check boxes activate different map features, including the
an overlay of the most current FEMA flood zone data, which overlays
the VE storm surge zone and the AE flood zone in red and blue,
respectively, on the aerial photo. A click on the account number in
the pop-up window displays not just the flood zone designation, but
the Base Flood Elevation (BFE) for the site. In our sample search
for the White Elephant Pub, we also got information about whether
the property is in an undeveloped "COBRA Zone," where the Coastal
Barrier Resources Act prohibits coverage with NFIP insurance (it's
not), and whether there has been a Letter of Map Revision (LOMR)
filed for that location to contest its flood designation (there
Digitized topographical maps also display current flood
zone overlays. This example shows the VE storm surge zone
in red and the AE flood zone in blue overlaid on the map of the
Gulf Blvd. address of the White Elephant Pub.
Other local governments are serving up similar interactive maps.
The Cape Cod town of Chatham, Massachusetts, for example, uses the
Mapsonline website created
by a company called PeopleGIS to post an interactive
digital map that includes FEMA’s proposed flood map
revisions. Using the "Layer" buttons provided in the side window,
viewers can turn flood-zone data on or off, and can also view other
layers, including aerial photo information from 2005.
Shore features, obviously, change from year to year — as
do flood plains near active rivers. FEMA's plan is to review and
modify its digital map data routinely. And the agency invites any
owner who doesn't agree with the flood hazard designation of a
property to apply for a Letter of Map Revision. If the evidence is
strong enough, says FEMA, the requirement for flood insurance can
be waived on a site-by-site basis — and the maps will be
revised to reflect the change.