National Flood Insurance Program

the Flood Insurance Rate Map for confluence of Sinking Creek and New River, at Eggleston in Giles County, shows most of the area with a 1% risk of a flood (Zone X) is also in the floodway (Zone AE)
the Flood Insurance Rate Map for confluence of Sinking Creek and New River, at Eggleston in Giles County, shows most of the area with a 1% risk of a flood (Zone X) is also in the floodway (Zone AE)
Source: Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Flood Plain Map ID 51071C0240C

Congress changed the rules for Federal disaster relief after a flood in 1968. It established the National Flood Insurance Program, ensuring funding for future recovery after a disaster but imposing requirements on communities to reduce the potential damage from a flood.

Congress could not regulate directly the future construction in floodplains because the Federal government does not issue building permits. In Virginia, that is the responsibility of local towns, cities, and counties. The US Congress overcame this limitation by linking Federally-subsidized flood insurance to changes in local zoning.

In order for landowners to qualify for the Federally-endorsed flood insurance, a political jurisdiction was required to implement a floodplain management ordinance "to reduce future flood risks to new construction in Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHAs)." Local floodplain management ordinances must be based on Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) identification of areas with different flood risks. Through that linkage, communities with authority to regulate building or establish construction priorities were required to minimize the potential costs of future disaster relief efforts that would be funded by Congressional appropriations.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency classifies areas with at least a 1% chance of flooding each year as Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHA's). Areas with at least a 1% risk of flooding (and thus a 26% chance of flooding over the life of a 30-year mortgage) are also described as areas within a "100-year" flood plain, or the area that will be inundated by a "base flood."

FEMA produces Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs) so property owners and insurance companies are aware of the flood risk on every parcel within participating communities. On the flood maps, areas with at least a 1% annual chance of flooding are shaded and identified by codes that start with the letter "A."

"Floodways, the channels of streams carrying most floodwaters where development is largely prohibited, are coded AE. Areas between the limits of the 100-year and 500-year floods are shaded and marked with codes "B" or "X." Areas with limited flood risk outside the 500-year flood plain (with less than a 0.2% chance of flooding each year) are not shaded on the map, and coded with a "C" or "X."1

Flood Insurance Rate Maps define areas of flooding risk
Flood Insurance Rate Maps define areas of flooding risk
Source: Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Flood Plain Map ID 51059C0260E

Few lenders will provide a mortgage for a house that is at-risk and uninsured, so the Federal incentive has convinced 21,000 communities to manage development in floodplains more agressively.2

By 2018, FEMA had completed Flood Insurance Rate Maps for 290 Virginia towns, cities, and counties that participated in the National Flood Insurance Program - including 29 considered "Minimally Flood Prone" and 11 "with No Special Flood Hazard."

Though 18 other jurisdictions had hazard areas identified by the flood mapping, they chose not to maintain zoning ordinances that met requirements for participating in the National Flood Insurance Program. Within the total of 18 was the City of Galax, which withdrew from the program in 1982. Also included were the Town of Dendron (suspended from the program in 1992) and the County of Louisa (suspended in 2016). As a result, property owners in those 18 jurisdictions did not qualify for subsidized flood insurance.3

In 2018, Mathews County authorized a building permit for the Islander Restaurant on Gwynn’s Island that risked the county being suspended from the National Flood Insurance Program. The restaurant was a local icon that had closed after being damaged by Hurricane Isabel in 2003, and its assessed value had dropped 99% from $300,000 to $3,000.

Repairing the restaurant would require $1 million. Repairs exceeding 50% of its value triggered the requirements of the National Flood Insurance Program to use the Flood Insurance Rate Maps and building above the height with a 1% risk of being flooded (the "100-year" floodplain).

The supervisors initially approved rebuilding without requiring raising the building at least four feet to get out of the floodplain. The owners of the restaurant successfully contended to the supervisors that the value of the commercial business should be based on its 2002 assessment. That much-higher value would allow much more repair work without crossing the 50% threshold.

Local officials justified their approval by noting the restaurant would be a contributing structure in the Gwynn’s Island Historic District. The district was not established yet, however, and the history of the struture did not provide an automatic exemption to the Federal floodplain ordinance requirements.

A week later, the Mathews County supervisors reversed their vote in order to ensure the county would stay within the National Flood Insurance Program.

The director of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation had advised that their action would be seen as a violation of the requirements set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency could have led to suspension from the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). If that had occurred, each of the 1,400 property owners in the county with flood insurance would have been required to pay an additional $50 per year. In addition, the state official also highlighted a serious concern for a county exposed annually to hurricanes and major "northeaster" storms:4

It is also very important that you understand that communities which have been suspended from the NFIP are ineligible for certain kinds of federal disaster aid, grants and loans such as in the event of a hurricane or other disaster

Between 1978-2012, Virginians filed over 40,000 flood insurance claims with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and received nearly $600 million in Federal flood payments. The jurisdictions with the greatest number of claims are all in Hampton Roads - the cities of Norfolk, Hampton, Poquoson, Virginia Beach, and Chesapeake. The only jurisdictions in which Federal flood insurance claims had not been paid were the towns of Clinchport, Lebanon, Iron Gate, Strasbug, and Louisa County.5

In the future, there may be a greater focus on reducing risk as well as paying for recovery after a disaster - but that will require communities to remove existing development from flood-prone areas. The Government Accountability Office reported in 2010:6

currently nearly one in four policyholders does not pay full-risk rates, and many pay a lower subsidized or "grandfathered" rate. Reducing or eliminating less than full-risk rates would decrease costs to taxpayers but substantially increase costs for many policyholders, some of whom might leave the program, potentially increasing postdisaster federal assistance... Increasing mitigation efforts to reduce the probability and severity of flood damage would also reduce flood claims in the long term but would have significant up-front costs that might require federal assistance.

the Fairfax Campus of George Mason University is mapped with code X and is not shaded, so it is outside the 500-year flood plain
the Fairfax Campus of George Mason University is mapped with code X and is not shaded, so it is outside the 500-year flood plain
Source: Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Flood Plain Map ID 51059C0260E

Coastal Barrier Resources System

Floods and Floodplains

Will Norfolk (and the Rest of Hampton Roads) Drown?

Stormwater Management in Virginia

flood walls and levees protect new development planned on the floodplain across the Roanoke River from Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital
flood walls and levees protect new development planned on the floodplain across the Roanoke River from Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital
Source: US Army Crps of Engineers, National Levee Database

Links

References

1. "Definitions of FEMA Flood Zone Designations," Federal Emergency Management Agency, https://msc.fema.gov/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/info?storeId=10001&catalogId=10001&langId=-1&content=floodZones&title=FEMA%20Flood%20Zone%20Designations (last checked September 22, 2013)
2. "What is the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP)?," Answers to Questions about the National Flood Insurance Program, Federal Emergency Management Agency, http://www.fema.gov/media-library/assets/documents/272?id=1404 (last checked September 22, 2013)
3. "The National Flood Insurance Program Community Status Book - Virginia," Federal Emergency Management Agency, September 23, 2013, http://www.fema.gov/cis/VA.html (last checked September 22, 2012)
4. "Mathews supervisors reverse decision to assist restaurant," Daily Press, September 9, 2018, http://www.dailypress.com/news/hampton/dp-nws-mathews-county-flood-20180906-story.html; "Board action may have placed residents’ flood insurance at risk," Gloucester-Mathews Gazette-Journal, September 5, 2018, https://www.gazettejournal.net/index.php/news/news_article/board_action_may_have_placed_residents_flood_insurance_at_risk; "Board seeks way to help Islander reopen," Gloucester-Mathews Gazette-Journal, February 28, 2018, http://www.gazettejournal.net/index.php/news/news_article/board_seeks_way_to_help_islander_reopen (last checked September 10, 2018)
5. National Flood Insurance Program, Loss Statistics, http://bsa.nfipstat.com/reports/1040.htm (last checked June 20, 2012)
6. "Flood Insurance: Public Policy Goals Provide a Framework for Reform," GAO-11-429T, testimony before the Subcommittee on Insurance, Housing, and Community Opportunity, Committee on Financial Services, House of Representatives by the Government Accountability Office on March 11, 2011, http://www.gao.gov/assets/130/125706.pdf (last checked June 20, 2012)


Floods and Floodplains
Climate
Rivers and Watersheds
Virginia Places