Primer on FEMA Flood Maps and Flood Insurance

The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) offers flood insurance to homeowners, condo owners and associations, tenants and business owners located in one of the 20,000 local governments that participate in the federal program. Condominium associations and unit owners may purchase insurance coverage.

In 2003, Congress directed FEMA to update the nation’s flood hazard maps. As a result of the Flood Map Modernization project, many properties and buildings that were previously located in a moderate-to-low risk flood zone are now mapped into a high-risk Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA) and that lenders may now require flood insurance. In addition, property owners who had obtained lower-cost Preferred Risk Policy before the new flood maps may now have to be converted to more expensive standard-rated premiums when they renew their policies. Because of the interest in the NFIP following Superstorm Sandy, this post highlights some of the key issues associated with the program.

Local Government Role and Application Process

While local governments are not required to participate in the NFIP, flood insurance and many kinds of federal disaster assistance are not available in communities that do not participate in the program. Moreover, federally regulated lending institutions are prohibited from issuing mortgages for properties within mapped Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHA). The SFHA is also known as the 100-year floodplain and is defined as the floodplain associated with a flood that has a 1% chance of being equaled or exceeded in any given year. is voluntary par

To participate in the NFIP, the local government must enter into an agreement with the federal government to adopt and enforce a floodplain management ordinance to reduce future flood risks to new construction in SFHA. The program applies to existing buildings that are substantially damaged or improved. For the purposes of determining flood insurance rates, existing buildings constructed before the effective date of Final Insurance Rate Map (FIRM) or before January 1, 1975 when a FIRM became effective before that date.

To join the NFIP, a municipality must pass a resolution indicating that it is interested in joining the program. NYSDEC has developed a Model Resolution. The local government also has to complete  out an Application to Participate  in the Federal Flood Insurance Program.

The municipality must also adopt a Flood Damage Prevention Law  that ensures  that development in flood hazard areas shall comply with the minimum standards set forth in the National Flood Insurance Program’s regulations (44 CFR 60.3).  If development is being considered for a Special Flood Hazard Area, the local floodplain administrator must review the development to ensure that construction standards have been met before issuing a floodplain development permit. Non-structural development within a Special Flood Hazard Area is also subject to a local floodplain development permit. The NYSDEC Floodplain Management Section has developed three model local laws for flood damage prevention that communities can adopt to join the program: one for communities without mapped flood hazards, one for communities with standard mapped flood hazards, and another for communities with coastal flood hazard areas. The Model Flood Damage Prevention Law  may be requested Here.

To determine what the flood hazards are for an area, FEMA performs an engineering study called a Flood Insurance Study (FIS). The results of the FIS are shown on the FIRM and a FIS Report. The FIRM serves is the official map of a community that identifies the special hazard areas and the risk premium zones applicable to the community.  The FIRM will show Base Flood Elevations (BFEs) and insurance risk zones in addition to floodplain boundaries. The FIRM may also show a delineation of the regulatory floodway.

A Flood Hazard Boundary Map (FHBM) is based on approximate data and identifies the SFHAs within a community. Flood hazard areas are determined using statistical analyses of records of riverflow, storm tides, erosion, wave heights, and rainfall; information obtained through consultation with the community; floodplain topographic surveys; and coastal, hydrologic, and hydraulic analyses.

The NYSDEC has developed a Floodplain Mapping Program and are available at  New York State Preliminary Floodplain Maps

Challenging Flood Hazard Determinations

Homeowners and community officials who disagree with FIRM showing a property is in a SFHA, may appeal to FEMA. Owners should first contact their community floodplain administrator to determine if the community is planning to appeal the information shown on the preliminary FIRM.

If the community is not planning to appeal and the owner believes the information shown on the preliminary FIRM is incorrect, they may submit certain property and elevation information and request that FEMA issue a Letter of Map Amendment (LOMA) if the property is located on natural ground or a Letter of Map Revision Based on Fill (LOMR-F) if the property has been elevated by the placement of earthen fill to revise the flood hazard information shown on the effective FIRM. All requests for map revisions, including LOMRs must be submitted through the CEO of the community  because it is the community that must adopt any changes to the FIRM.

FEMA has developed an Elevation Certificate (EC) to establish elevation information necessary that can be used to ensure compliance with community floodplain management ordinances, determine the proper insurance premium rate, or support a request for a Letter of Map Amendment (LOMA).  Another useful form is the Floodproofing Certificate that can be used to certify a floodproofing design for non-residential buildings that are permitted as an alternative to elevating to or above the Base Flood Elevation (BFE).

For a  LOMA or LOMR-F, FEMA will review property-specific information (including surveyed elevation data, typically the elevation of the lowest adjacent grade of the structure in question, provided by a Licensed Land Surveyor. A homeowner may have to hire a land surveyor to perform this elevation survey  if this data is not readily available. No fee is charged for the review of a LOMA; however, there is a review fee for a LOMR-F.  Once an application and all necessary data are received, the determination is normally issued within 30 – 60 days.

If FEMA approves the request, the agency will issue a LOMR to the Chief Executive Officer of the community and send a copy to the floodplain administrator of the community. The LOMR has the effect of revising the FIRM without physically revising and reprinting the affected FIRM panel(s). LOMRs are generally issued within 90 days of the date all required data, forms, and processing fees are received. If the submitted data and information do not warrant a revision to the effective FIRM, FEMA will send a letter to the CEO of the community explaining why the effective FIRM could not be revised and, if appropriate, what action may be taken in the future.

Property owners who disagree with a lender’s determination that the property is in a SFHA, may apply for a LODR, LOMA, or a LOMR-F.  If the LOMA or LOMR-F removes the SFHA designation from the property, the homeowner can submit the LOMA or LOMR-F to the lender as proof that no federal flood insurance is required. It should be noted that while a LOMA or LOMR-F may waive the NFIP flood insurance requirements, a lender has the discretion to require flood insurance.

To obtain a LODR, the owner and lender may jointly request that FEMA review the lender’s determination within 45 days of the date the lender determines that a property is in a SFHA. FEMA will review the same information the lender used to determine that the structure was located in an SFHA. Unlike with a LOMA or LOMR-F, the elevation of the structure or property is not considered for a LODR. Instead, FEMA will simply review the location of the structure to the SFHA boundary on the FIRM.

What Losses Are Covered By Flood Insurance

The NFIP covers direct physical losses by “flooding” which includes a general and temporary condition during which the surface of normally dry land is partially or completely inundated. Flooding can be caused by:

  • The overflow of inland or tidal waters;
  • The unusual and rapid accumulation or runoff of surface waters from any source;
  • Mudslides, i.e., mudflows, caused by flooding, that could be described as a river of liquid and flowing mud; or
  • The collapse or destabilization of land along the shore of a lake or other body of water, resulting from erosion, the effect of waves, or water currents exceeding normal, cyclical levels.

Flood insurance may also cover basements which are defined as any area of a building with a floor that is below ground level on all sides. Flood insurance does not cover basement improvements  such as finished walls, floors or ceilings or personal belongings such as furniture and other contents. However, it does cover structural elements, essential equipment and other items normally located in a basement as well as cleanup costs. Many of these items are covered under building coverage, and some are covered under contents coverage.

The following items are covered under building coverage so long as they are connected to a power source and installed in their functioning location:

  • Sump pumps;
  • Well water tanks and pumps, cisterns and the water in them;
  • Oil tanks and the oil in them, natural gas tanks and the gas in them;
  • Pumps and/or tanks used in conjunction with solar energy;
  • Furnaces, hot water heaters, air conditioners, and heat pumps;
  • Electrical junction and circuit breaker boxes and required utility connections;
  • Foundation elements;
  • Stairways, staircases and elevators;
  • Unpainted drywall and Sheetrock walls and ceilings, including fiberglass insulation;
  • Clothes washers and dryers, food freezers and the food in them.

Insurance Premiums

FEMA has extended the eligibility for the lower-cost policies to owners of buildings that have been newly mapped into high-risk flood zones (i.e., labeled with “A” or “V” on the flood maps) due to a map revision between October 1, 2008 and January 1, 2011. Buildings that are newly mapped into a high-risk flood zone due to a map revision on or after January 1, 2011 are eligible for a lower-cost premium for two policy years from the map revision date. At the end of the extended eligibility period, policies on these buildings must be written as standard-rated policies but there may be additional rating options available that could result in additional savings (e.g.,  elevation rating)

The Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 extended the NFIP to September 30, 2017. However, the law phases out subsidized rates for certain properties, including non-primary residences (vacation and second homes). FEMA defines a non-principal/non-primary residence “as a building that will not be lived in by the insured or the insured’s spouse for at least 80% of the 365 days following the policy effective date.”  The annual premium rates must be increased by 25% a year until they reflect the full premium rate.

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