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Limited FEMA Mapping on Indian Reservations Increases Flood Risk, Lessens Federal Flood Insurance

The Hoh River meets an exquisite rocky coastline amid old-growth rain forest at the northwest boundary of the Hoh Indian Reservation in western Washington State. Ninety-seven percent of the reservation is in a 100-year floodplain, but it hasn’t been mapped by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

That lack of FEMA mapping puts the Hoh among the majority of tribes that don’t participate in the National Flood Insurance Program. NFIP was created by Congress in 1968 to mitigate flood losses nationwide through community floodplain management ordinances and offer FEMA-managed federally backed affordable flood insurance protection for property owners. Flooding, the most common, destructive natural hazard in the U.S., causes catastrophic harm to tribal lands too, some of which flood repeatedly.

As of August 2012, only 37 of 566 federally recognized tribes were participating in the NFIP. Three tribes accounted for more than 70 percent of policies. Under a Congressional mandate the General Accountability Office examined why Indian tribes’ participation in NFIP is extremely low, even though some tribal lands are at high risk of flooding.

According to the January 14, 2013 GAO report, which was sent to the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee and the House Financial Services Committee, FEMA has not placed a high priority on mapping rural areas, including many Indian lands, for flood risk, and most tribal lands remain unmapped. Without flood hazard maps, tribal communities, even those in high-risk areas, may be unaware of their flood risk.

This is in part the reason the risk of flooding is thought of as relatively low on many tribal lands. Too, tribes may lack the resources and administrative capacity needed to administer NFIP requirements, and NFIP premiums are often too high for low-income tribal members.

Some Indian tribes do not have reservations over which they can enact and enforce the land use ordinances that are required for NFIP participation. Instead, many have lands that were allotted to individuals rather than to a tribal entity, limiting tribal jurisdiction.

Tribes also may be reluctant to pursue NFIP participation if they are uncertain about whether they would qualify and could meet the program’s requirements. Further, those with fewer resources and less administrative capacity may be less proactive in requesting that FEMA map their communities, even though they may be vulnerable to floods.

The GAO recommended that the FEMA Administrator examine ways to make mapping of tribal lands in flood-prone areas a higher priority. FEMA agreed with the GAO recommendation.

Limited mapping has led to a lack of awareness of the risk of flooding and of the benefits of NFIP, the GAO report said. To make the best use of its resources FEMA has focused mapping efforts on densely populated and coastal areas. However, increased mapping of Indian lands is in line with Congress’s focus on increasing tribes’ participation in NFIP and key to raising awareness of the types of flood risks these residents face.

“Expanding its flood mapping efforts will challenge FEMA to balance its need to make the best use of scarce resources with the needs of these previously underserved communities,” the report said.

Read the report here.