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Flood Insurance Rate Map

What is a Flood Insurance Rate Map?

Property owners within floodplains are at risk of incurring costly, sometimes catastrophic, damage to their home, business, farm or other property in the event of a major flood. So how does one know if property is at risk? Reliable information can be found on a Flood Insurance Rate Map, also known as a FIRM.

Flood Insurance Rate Map Definition

A Flood Insurance Rate Map is produced by the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), a US government program managed by the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA). The NFIP uses survey data and expert information to produce a map very similar to a topographic map. It includes basic information on land elevations and obviously all water sources like lakes, rivers, and streams.

Most importantly, it analyzes data to determine an area’s risk assessment based on proximity to flooding sources and elevation. Floodplain boundaries are delineated, showing which areas are more or less at risk than others. Insurance companies use Flood Insurance Rate Maps to determine flood insurance rates, or even whether or not a property is secure enough to insure in the first place.

Areas on FIRMs are assigned a letter code which corresponds to a category assigned by NFIP. These categories include designations like “coastal flood zone” or “flood depths of 1 to 3 feet.”

Homeowners and Flood Damage

While one may think that the catastrophic damage that can be caused by a flood is covered by a standard homeowner’s insurance policy, this assumption is incorrect. Special flood insurance must be purchased to recoup the cost of damage after a flood. Many common insurance carriers do not offer flood insurance because it is cost-prohibitive for them. Sometimes, it is simply too expensive an option to spread across the limited number of purchasers. In response, the US government began offering flood insurance through the NFIP, which was created in 1968.

A mortgage company also relies upon a Flood Insurance Rate Map in order to determine whether or not flood insurance is required for a financed property. It may not even choose to finance an investment unless insurance coverage is purchased.

Evolution of FIRMs

Just as the terrain of an area is almost constantly being changed by new construction or significant weather events, it is the responsibility of the NFIP to update their Flood Insurance Rate Maps. This is both costly and time-consuming, so some information will be slightly outdated. In addition, the NFIP is undergoing a rather large transition to convert FIRMs from printed to digital versions at a cost of roughly $200 million per year. The new maps, called DFIRMS (digital FIRMs), began to be produced in 2004 and the NFIP hopes to transition their entire library to digitized copies.

How Can I Obtain a FIRM?

FEMA has an online site where a user can input geographical information and view a version of a Flood Insurance Rate Map for their area, when available, at no cost. Copies of maps can also be purchased from the site. In addition, towns use FIRMs for zoning purposes and to plan any sort of municipal development, so a local government agency is also a good place to start. Some communities may even have a designated floodplain manager who should be an expert source of information for a particular area.

When looking at a FIRM, one should pay attention to the version date which will be listed on the map. It is important to look at the most recent version completed, and to ask if there have been any amendments to the maps. These amendments are noted with a Letter of Map Change.

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