WASHINGTON – Senator Susan Collins, Ranking Member of the Homeland Security Committee, urged federal officials at a special joint hearing Wednesday to involve local officials and residents in the decision-making process as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) updates flood maps across the nation, including areas along coastal Maine. She also questioned the current approach, where FEMA relies on local communities to provide – and pay for studies to gather – community-specific data that can affect the ultimate outcome of FEMA’s flood mapping decisions.
The hearing, “Flood Preparedness and Mitigation: Map Modernization, Levee Inspection, and Levee Repairs,” was held before the Committee’s Subcommittees on Disaster Recovery and on State, Local and Private Sector Preparedness and Integration. Federal officials testifying were Jo-Ellen Darcy, Assistant Secretary of the Army, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; and Sandra Knight, Deputy Assistant Administrator with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a part of the Department of Homeland Security, which comes under the jurisdiction of the Homeland Security Committee.
“FEMA is in the midst of updating flood maps around the country,” said Senator Collins. “These new maps are designed to more accurately portray flooding risks. While I support FEMA’s efforts to modernize outdated flood maps with new modeling and more detailed data, it is imperative that FEMA work with affected communities on this effort to ensure that the resulting maps are based upon the most accurate science available.”
In Maine, FEMA recently published preliminary flood maps for the towns of South Portland, Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth, Kennebunk, Kennebunkport, Harpswell, and others. Earlier this year, after hearing concerns from the City of Portland, Senator Collins insisted that FEMA pursue a more collaborative approach with the flood map updating process. That led to important changes to recently proposed flood maps based on additional scientific data provided by the City of Portland.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Senator Collins used Portland’s experience to question why local communities are forced to pay for consultants in order to get an accurate assessment. “FEMA recently revised the flood map for Maine’s largest city, Portland, without consulting Portland City officials,” Senator Collins said. “This flood map would have classified much of the Harbor as a high-risk flood zone. Such a designation would have had a detrimental effect on the economic vitality of the city.
“The city questioned the accuracy of the initial map for Portland Harbor, and I asked that FEMA meet with Portland officials to consider the city’s concerns. Portland hired a contractor, at a cost of $10,000, to complete additional modeling for Portland Harbor. Thankfully, as a result of this additional modeling and a collaborative process between Portland officials and FEMA, the flood maps for Portland Harbor were greatly improved based on good science and local knowledge of risk.
“Nevertheless, Portland’s complaints at the start of the process are not unique. Other coastal localities in Maine are now facing the same issues the City of Portland did. Undoubtedly, other communities across the nation will also likely object to FEMA’s proposed maps. The economic consequences of revised flood maps can be quite dramatic and devastating, particularly in the current economic climate.”
FEMA’s Knight said the agency appreciated Portland’s additional technical input, which she cited as “a new source of wind data” for the region. As it turned out, FEMA’s baseline wind measurements were not appropriate for Casco Bay because of its unique coastline, ledges, peninsulas, and islands; Portland’s consultant was able to supply the more detailed data to FEMA. Knight said communities are urged to supply similar local data to FEMA during its flood mapping update process.
But as Senator Collins noted: “It’s shifting the burden on to the coastal communities in York and Cumberland counties to spend the money for consultants to produce this data. That’s expensive and a lot of these communities are cash-strapped right now due to tough economic times. The financial burden of providing the data that would lead to the most accurate possible flood maps shouldn’t fall on the communities; it should be FEMA’s responsibility.”
Knight said the FEMA Cooperating Technical Partners Program is available for some communities to perform flood mapping activities. There are some technical requirements for a community to be eligible, however. Those include having systems in place to support mapping and data collection efforts and having staff with capabilities in technical mapping activities or staff that have a demonstrated technical ability to monitor contractors that perform those activities.
As more and more Maine coastal areas come up for flood mapping updates, Senator Collins said she expects FEMA to continue to keep her informed. “I would ask that you continue to work with me and the other members of this committee to help communities tap into that program. For a community to have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to produce data to challenge these maps is really difficult in these tough economic times.”