America underwater: When FEMA’s flood maps can’t do enough

This year, extreme precipitation deluged communities across the United States - a hallmark risk of a warming climate. Government flood-insurance maps often left residents unprepared for the threat.

A Washington Post analysis of videos taken by people who endured destruction from flooding pinpoints how federal maps are failing to reflect the growing peril that Americans face.

On July 26, Brandon Jones’ St. Louis home was hit by major flooding for the second time since 2008, when he moved in. Cars were barely visible under several feet of turgid stormwater, as record rainfall fell on the city.

“Oh, my God,” Jones said in a video he posted to Facebook. “I’m stuck and can’t even go nowhere.”

Two days later, the area flooded all over again.

But Jones’ Penrose neighborhood isn’t designated as a high-risk location on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood maps. These high-risk zones, which lie in what’s called the Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA), cover properties that the agency considers to have at least a 1 percent annual chance of flooding. This 100-year flood plain designation requires property owners with federally backed mortgages to buy flood insurance, and it influences how communities regulate development.

A Washington Post investigation uncovered communities throughout the country where FEMA’s maps are failing to warn Americans about flood risk. As climate change accelerates, it is increasing types of flooding that the maps aren’t built to include. The resulting picture leaves homeowners, prospective buyers, renters and cities in the dark about the potential dangers they face, which insurance they should buy and what kinds of development should be restricted.


The examination surveyed extreme flooding events between June and September across the country, by analyzing hundreds of videos and photographs, speaking with local residents, consulting experts, and interviewing local and federal officials.

In some instances, like the deadly July flooding in eastern Kentucky, the maps did convey higher risk where The Post verified visual material. However, in places like Red Lodge, Mont.; St. Louis; Dallas; and Summerville, Ga., the maps fell short. Fewer than 1 percent of single-family homes in these areas hold flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), the primary source of flood insurance for residential properties, according to an analysis of FEMA data conducted by the Seattle-based actuarial firm Milliman.

FEMA officials have testified to Congress that over 40 percent of NFIP claims made in 2017 to 2019 were for properties outside official flood hazard zones, or in areas the agency had yet to map.

FEMA stresses the maps are not meant to be predictive and that residents considering buying flood insurance should take into account other aspects of the overall risk to the property.

“Maps do not forecast flooding. Maps only reflect past flooding conditions and are a snapshot in time. They do not represent all hazards and do not predict future conditions,” Michael Grimm, acting deputy associate administrator of FEMA’s Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration, told The Post.

Half a century ago, Congress directed FEMA to model for one-in-100-year floods, which is still what prompts property owners with federally backed mortgages to purchase flood insurance. But now, even more extreme precipitation events are growing increasingly common, as a warming climate allows storms to carry more moisture, producing greater rain or snow in a short period of time.

“Climate has changed so much that the maps aren’t going to keep up for some time,” said W. Craig Fugate, FEMA administrator under President Barack Obama. “They are not designed for extreme rainfall events.”

FEMA says it wants to move beyond the “binary” model of flood risk, and last year introduced a more sophisticated method of pricing flood insurance. But its maps still guide regulations and planning.

FEMA is required to reassess flood maps every five years, but new ones take an average of seven years to finish, officials have told Congress. The agency works with local and state officials during the revision process, and communities may resist expanding designated flood zones because it adds costs and can hamper development.

“You would think, well, FEMA could just update the maps in issue,” Fugate said. “That’s not true . . . local governments have been opposed to any maps that show an increasing risk.”

In addition to the maps being out of date, some decades-old in a changing climate, another problem is how the maps are built in the first place. They capture river and coastal flooding, not inundation caused by intense bursts of rainfall, known as pluvial flooding - a particularly dangerous problem in cities, where many porous surfaces have been paved over.

This makes FEMA’s designated flood hazard zones a bad match for the intense weather events that scientists say U.S. communities will face, like the catastrophically intense rainfall from remnants of Hurricane Ida that left 13 dead in New York City last year.

“It is precisely that type of flooding, urban flooding and flash flooding from shortish duration but very high-intensity downpours, that is expected to increase the most in a warming climate,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA.

It’s also the kind of flooding that Jones experienced in St. Louis. Afterward, he went over a map of the area with a FEMA representative.

“My area wasn’t even a zone, because it’s nowhere close to a river, it’s nowhere near close to a pond, it’s nowhere close to any water,” Jones later told The Post.

Grimm acknowledged the challenges the agency faces in terms of mapping pluvial flooding and the effects of a changing climate. “There are limitations that we need to address,” Grimm said. “What the maps right now are mainly covering are that coastal flood hazard and the riverine flood hazard for larger riverine watersheds.

“We know that as climate changes, the impacts are getting worse,” he added. “We’re seeing more and more flooding going on as a result.”


No accounting for climate change

In June, heavy rain and warmer weather melted snowpacks in Montana, swelling rivers to record levels and forcing the closure of Yellowstone National Park. Red Lodge, Mont., known as the “gateway” to Yellowstone, was left devastated on June 13 after Rock Creek, a river that runs through the town, overflowed and spilled into the town, illustrating how climate change is pushing FEMA’s maps beyond their limits.

Flooding in Red Lodge spread far beyond FEMA areas designated to have at least a 1 percent chance of inundation.

Taylor Monfort-Eaton had only minutes to escape through a broken window in his basement apartment as it rapidly filled with water. This video showed Monfort-Eaton’s car submerged in water outside the home on South Platt Avenue, more than 300 feet from the nearest designated flood hazard zone.

FEMA also maps areas at risk from more-extreme events that have a 0.2 percent annual chance of occurring, known as the 500-year flood plain. But in Red Lodge, the waters deluged areas beyond these zones, too.

“The river just took people’s properties,” said Gena Burghoff, who filmed as water from Rock Creek rushed through residential streets and surged into homes.

The floodwaters transformed the town’s main road into a river. Tulsa Dean, co-owner of the historic Yodeler Motel, said they lost nearly half their rooms and face an estimated tab of $1.2 million to rebuild.

When Taylor Monfort-Eaton heard water running in his basement apartment in Red Lodge early on June 13, he thought a pipe might have burst. He had spent the day before laying sandbags in nearby towns, but he felt certain that his home, several blocks from Rock Creek, wasn’t at serious risk of flooding.

Monfort-Eaton got out of bed and stepped into ankle-deep water. The force of rushing water prevented him from opening the latch on the upstairs front door. Within minutes, water was rising to his waist. He was trapped.


“I go back in to my living room, my couch is overturned and floating. My refrigerator has been knocked down, most of my kitchen is in my bedroom at this point,” Monfort-Eaton recalled. He was only able to escape through a broken window, suffering cuts as he pulled himself out.

“I firmly believe that if I had woken up 15 minutes later, I would have been dead,” he said.

According to FEMA, its maps should perform better in a town like Red Lodge, where the flood plain is built around a single body of water, Rock Creek.

The flooding that ended up overwhelming the town indicates a gap between the data that goes into FEMA maps and current climate conditions, said Kelsey Jencso, Montana state climatologist and an associate professor of watershed hydrology at the University of Montana.

“The problem with climate change is that the long-term baseline or average condition is also changing,” Jencso said. “This is why it is important to use shorter periods of record when assessing drought conditions or the probability of flood risk.”

“What was once a 1-in-100-year event may now be a 1-in-20-year event where climate change velocities are high,” Jencso said.

Temperatures have risen by at least 1.3 degrees Celsius (2.3 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1950 in the Greater Yellowstone Region, which includes parts of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, according to the Greater Yellowstone Climate Assessment, which also found that precipitation in the late spring increased by an average of 20 percent.

Starting on June 10, more than 5 inches of rain fell in some mountain areas west of Red Lodge. The rain, combined with warmer weather, melted snowpack that had persisted into June, generating surging flows into rivers and streams, including Rock Creek.

FEMA’s Grimm said that precipitation, existing water levels, soil saturation and obstructions in waterways can all intensify flooding. “In most instances where flooding [is] occurring in areas not identified on the map, there can be multiple compounding factors that contribute to the flooding,” he said.

FEMA’s maps do not take climate change into account, and scientists have raised questions about the use of historic meteorological and stream data to estimate the odds that a given location will flood.

“We are probably overestimating the rarity of some of these events even before climate change,” Swain said, referring to 500- and 1,000-year floods. “And now on top of that we have climate change, which is actually making them larger and occurring even more frequently.”

Residents in Red Lodge, where FEMA’s maps were last updated in 2012, blamed them for fostering complacency about potential flood risk. After his narrow escape, Monfort-Eaton met with a neighbor and the two tracked down a FEMA map.


“The flood map just does not even come close to where I was living,” he said.

Monfort-Eaton’s landlord, Gordon Williams, said, “Flood insurance is typically fairly expensive, and that’s part of the reason that many of us don’t purchase flood insurance unless we have to from the bank.” Williams’ property is blocks from the nearest designated flood hazard zone and he did not hold flood insurance on it.

“When you start looking at the numbers, it becomes cost-prohibitive to purchase flood insurance if there is no seeming risk of floods,” said Williams, who expects repairs to cost at least $10,000. “We weren’t aware of any history of flooding in that area.”

‘FEMA flood maps don’t even attempt to model urban flooding.’

The Dallas-Fort Worth area was in the midst of a months-long drought when a historic storm arrived late on Aug. 21. Over a foot of rain fell in some locations by the next day, causing widespread flash flooding. One person was killed. Urban areas are a particular weakness of the agency’s maps, according to FEMA officials and experts.

Brittany Taylor awoke around 3 a.m. and helplessly watched as floodwaters poured into the ground floor of her loft apartment located near the Deep Ellum neighborhood.

At a downtown highway interchange, Azhar Sajawal filmed vehicles that had been abandoned in rising floodwaters.


In South Dallas, Dkamreen Jones escaped his mother’s flooded home through a window, then waded through several feet of water before reaching higher ground.

The storm woke up Brittany Taylor in the apartment she had moved into two days earlier. She looked out the window and saw water everywhere, then heard it inside the ground floor of the loft. Bewildered, Taylor filmed herself wading through murky floodwaters that came nearly to her knee, destroying belongings she had only started to unpack. “I literally don’t know what to do,” said Taylor, her voice quivering. “Should I call 911?”

Taylor’s home is part of a wave of redevelopment in central parts of Dallas. In nearby Deep Ellum, Emily White’s apartment flooded the same night. In an interview with The Post, White said she remembered the leasing agent telling her there wasn’t a risk of flooding - and like much of this part of the city, that was true, according to FEMA’s maps. She decided against buying flood insurance.

But paved-over urban areas in Dallas and other cities are vulnerable to rainfall-driven flooding, said Nick Fang, professor of civil engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“Gentrifying areas like Deep Ellum have relatively high imperviousness,” Fang said. “A combination of large rainfall with high imperviousness is just a perfect formula for flooding to any watersheds.”

Dkamreen Jones was asleep at his mother’s house in a predominantly African American neighborhood in South Dallas, when his dog started making noises around 2 a.m. Water was steadily pouring into the home. Located less than two blocks from a canal, the house sits outside FEMA’s 100-year flood plain, although it appears in the agency’s 500-year zone.

Jones, who was with two siblings, his mother and her fiancé, escaped out of a window.

After wading through floodwaters, the family made it to a nearby apartment complex located on higher ground, where they started knocking on doors. A neighbor finally let them in after the rain had stopped. “We lost everything,” Jones said.

Also missing from FEMA’s special flood hazard area is a huge interchange near downtown, where drivers became trapped as water rose.

“FEMA flood maps don’t even attempt to model urban flooding,” said Rob Moore, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has called for an overhaul of how the agency models flood risk. “It’s a problem, because people look at a flood map and they are thinking that this is the authoritative government projection of flood risk.”

FEMA’s Grimm said the agency recognizes that its maps are failing to capturing the full impact of rainfall like the deluge that hit Dallas this summer.

“Recent events have provided stark reminders that flooding does not only occur along our nation’s rivers and our coast,” he said, adding there’s now “an increased demand for more comprehensive flood hazard information.”

Last year, FEMA began employing an updated methodology, Risk Rating 2.0, which incorporates a wider set of variables, like pluvial flooding, so that flood insurance prices under the NFIP better reflect a property’s risk.

But Risk Rating 2.0 is, for now, limited to insurance pricing. Agency maps - and the 100-year flood plain - remain the primary regulatory tool used by the federal government to convey flood risk.

“You rely on these products that may not be as effective as you’d like,” Travis Houston, assistant emergency management coordinator for Dallas, said in an interview, describing FEMA’s maps. “And I think you see that here.”

The interchange where drivers got stuck in August, and other parts of downtown Dallas that went underwater, do appear in maps produced by the First Street Foundation, a nonprofit organization that models flood risk. First Street also modeled risk where Taylor and Jones’ mother lived.

In 2020, First Street found that about 5.9 million properties and property owners faced substantial risk of flooding despite being outside FEMA’s special hazard areas. That represented a roughly 70 percent increase over those inside the 100-year flood plain. This pattern repeated in each of the flood events The Post examined.

Experts from First Street acknowledge constraints that FEMA operates in. Run independently, the nonprofit organization can update its models more frequently and avoid confrontation with local communities that often resist the expansion of federal flood zones, Michael Lopes, communications director at First Street, said in an email.

“FEMA faces an inordinate number of regulatory hurdles and bureaucratic red tape,” Lopes said.

Neglected communities and empty maps

Overnight on July 25 into 26, the St. Louis metropolitan area experienced its most intense period of rainfall since records began in 1874. More than 9 inches fell on the city, causing catastrophic flash flooding, including in neighborhoods that sit outside FEMA’s flood plains. Across the Mississippi River, parts of St. Clair County, Ill., were heavily impacted, including communities with long-standing sewage-contamination issues. Unlike most communities in the United States, residents in St. Clair and two adjacent Illinois counties don’t have access to fully searchable FEMA flood maps.

Brandon Jones awoke early on July 26 in the Northside neighborhood of Penrose to find his home surrounded by floodwaters and abandoned cars.

Firefighters looked for people stranded in floodwaters on the Northside. Residents in St. Louis can use FEMA’s Flood Map Service Center to confirm whether their addresses fall in the flood plain.

But across the Mississippi River, fully interactive flood maps were not available ahead of the storm. In Belleville, Ill., animal-control workers scrambled to rescue around 75 dogs and cats.

The half-million residents of three counties on the Illinois side of the river were left to consult decades-old digitized paper maps.

More than 8 inches of rain fell in parts of St. Clair County, where flooding led to evacuations and damaged some 700 homes. The governor of Illinois made a request for a disaster declaration on Aug. 3 and on Oct. 14, President Joe Biden signed a major disaster declaration for the Illinois county, opening financial assistance to residents.

The Post found that people in St. Clair, Monroe and Madison counties in Illinois, do not have access to fully searchable interactive flood maps normally available through FEMA’s Flood Map Service Center, which is the “official public source for flood hazard information produced in support of the NFIP,” according to FEMA.

That gap impacts flooded neighborhoods in East St. Louis, and it extends to predominantly Black communities in nearby Centreville that have suffered years of “chronic sanitary sewer overflow issues,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency, including what residents describe as routine exposure to raw sewage.

Nicole Nelson, executive director of Equity Legal Service, who has represented residents in the area, said in an email that FEMA maps don’t help residents navigate rainfall flooding. “That makes the maps, in our opinion, woefully inadequate when attempting to capture the severe and frequent flooding that negligent systems like Centreville’s have caused over decades.”

The Post consulted FEMA’s paper maps of St. Clair County - last updated in 2003 - and confirmed flooding that fell outside the agency’s 100-year flood plain. In Belleville, workers at an animal shelter scrambled on July 26 to save around 75 dogs and cats. The facility sits near a creek, which periodically floods, said Ashley Jett, director of animal services for St. Clair County.

“Every car going up the street . . . floating,” Brandon Jones, on the west side of the Mississippi River in St. Louis, said in a video he recorded on July 26 from his home. “I’m stuck.”

Jones and his neighbors in St. Louis’s Northside have faced repeated flooding. In 2011, several pumping stations failed during heavy rainfall, causing water to back up into homes, including in Penrose.

As a port city, St. Louis has long faced the threat of inundation. A floodwall system completed in the 1970s has helped protect the city from the Mississippi River, said Andrew Hurley, a professor of history at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, but stormwater and sewer overflows still pose a major risk.

Local authorities, acknowledging that the city’s outdated sewage system is not prepared for more frequent intense rainfall, have bought out properties in vulnerable areas and converted paved spaces into permeable ground.

But for a city that is encouraging some residents to move due to flooding, FEMA’s maps tell another story. Penrose is entirely outside the agency’s 100-year flood plain, last updated in 2011.

Two days after the July 26 flooding, more rain fell on the waterlogged St. Louis area. That afternoon, Jones live-streamed as two firefighters pushed through waist-high water to rescue a driver and carried him back to Jones’ porch.

After a few minutes, Jones turned the camera on himself. “I don’t even know what to say,” he said.

A missing creek

Gov. Brian Kemp (R) declared a state of emergency in Chattooga and Floyd counties after as much as a foot of rain fell on Sept. 4 in parts of northwest Georgia. In Summerville, where FEMA’s flood plains largely skirt central areas - including a creek that runs through the city - homes and businesses faced flash flooding for the second year running.

Shortly after daybreak, Dee Windle filmed heavy flooding in his home in Summerville.

By 8 a.m., the waters had risen more, and his refrigerator was floating across the kitchen. Windle later measured the waterline at 19 inches.

Recent flooding in Summerville has been tied to Town Branch, a creek that passes directly through the city. Local residents and authorities say blockages have exacerbated flooding. But FEMA only analyzed risk along part of the creek outside central Summerville when drawing its latest maps.

The next day, Gabriel McClover returned to the Vineyard, the restaurant he owns with his wife, Vonnelle, to assess the damage.

Early on Sept. 4, Dee Windle got a call from police warning him that water was surrounding his home on Union Street. Windle lives two blocks from Commerce Street - Highway 27 - Summerville’s main road, and a block from Town Branch, the creek that courses through the small city.

By 8 a.m., water had risen enough to upend his refrigerator, which was floating through the kitchen.

The scene was familiar. In June 2021, Windle’s home was one of the properties in Summerville that flooded after remnants of Tropical Storm Claudette dumped more than 5 inches of rain in the area.

“I’ve remodeled my house two years in a row, still paying on the first time,” said Windle, who blamed the creek, but said the city also had neglected drainage problems.

In downtown Summerville, Heather Casey watched as items from her design and decor store, Dirt, floated down Commerce Street. In June 2021, 10 to 12 inches of water made it inside, but this time there was three feet of water, she estimated.

“When the creek gets to capacity, it actually pushes water back up into our parking lot,” Casey said. “It is a drainage issue within the city.”

FEMA’s flood plain in the area, last updated in 2008, does not include most of central Summerville. Starting in 2006, FEMA held meetings with state and local officials to discuss the redrawing process in Chattooga County. The Summerville News, a local newspaper, reported at the time on opposition to expanding the flood plain in certain areas. FEMA’s resulting study only examined a mile-long section of Town Branch and stopped short of downtown Summerville.

FEMA’s Grimm said “recent flooding events will certainly be taken into consideration when collaboratively scoping any future studies in the area.”

Summerville City Council member Joe Money told The Post that work began this summer to clear portions of Town Branch to help alleviate flooding. There’s a now a sense of urgency.

“When we do get rain, I mean, it’s heavy and it’s hard and it’s a lot at one time, way more than what I can remember,” said Chattooga County Sole Commissioner Blake Elsberry.

In downtown Summerville, floodwaters filled other businesses near Commerce Street, like the Vineyard Vegetarian Cafe and Juice Bar.

“It was about two feet throughout the whole entire restaurant,” Gabriel McClover, who owns the cafe with his wife, Vonnelle, said. “So we lost tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment and material.”

“We’re going to have to do a lot of work ourselves, but we hope to be getting back open.”

McClover said he knew parts of Summerville could experience flooding during intense rain, but he didn’t consider his business at risk. Neither the couple nor their landlord had flood insurance, he said, and the policies they did purchase only covered a handful of the restaurant’s most expensive items.

“It’s a small, rural town,” McClover said. “Nobody has, like, 30 grand just to put back in a building.”

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The Washington Post’s Yutao Chen, Elyse Samuels, Monica Ulmanu, Juliet Eilperin and Joe Moore contributed to this report.