FEMA’s new flood maps place thousands of Boston properties in high-risk zones

Using new technology for modeling flood risk, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has produced updated maps designating areas considered to be at high risk of flooding.

These changes can have a significant impact on property values and insurance premiums for homeowners and businesses, as federal law mandates that structures located in "Special Flood Hazard Areas" must be covered by flood insurance. In some cities, such as Boston, the impact of FEMA's proposal is shaping up to be fairly dramatic.

According to the Boston Globe, the high-risk zones on the updated flood maps stretch "deep into [the] city," extending into multiple new residential neighborhoods and commercial districts. This change would place many property owners under the federal flood insurance mandate for the first time, increasing risks to insurers and banks holding mortgages, necessitating them to revisit valuations for thousands of structures suddenly designated as high-risk.

The number of residential properties located in Special Flood Hazard Areas would more than double under FEMA's proposal, jumping from about 8,000 to 18,000. Commercial properties would also be affected. Existing flood maps only place about 250 businesses in flood zones and most of these structures are located along the city's wharves. The new maps would designate almost 4,000 businesses as high-risk, including buildings located in the city's downtown, financial and seaport districts.

"People need to be aware of it, for development reasons. For insurance purposes. And, first and foremost, for what their risk is for their safety," senior FEMA engineer Kerry Bogdan said during an interview with the Globe.

Brian Swett, the city's top environmental official, said that the city would have an independent consultant review FEMA's data to verify the agency's conclusions about the extent of flood risk. Swett added that there would also be public hearings on the proposed maps, which are expected to take effect in early 2015.

According to Bogdan, FEMA has often been willing to make "tweaks" to its flood-risk maps in response to community concerns in the past. However, it seems clear that thousands of property owners in Boston and other coastal cities will soon be searching for flood insurance policies. Insurers will need a reliable property valuation solution to accurately calculate replacement costs for these structures.