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Investigations

Mapping Update

FEMA’s internal audits reveal unskilled workers with only fast food experience determined if homes were in floodplains.

Error rates of 25% - 30% likely led to significant financial loss to flood insurance policyholders, including wrongful denial of insurance claims.

The Washington Post reported it obtained copies of audits that FEMA has refused to provide to Congress. The confidential audits reveal a number of problems within FEMA’s billion dollar map modernization program. Congress intended for the program to replace obsolete paper maps with state of the art digital maps.

According to the Post article, a FEMA call center was to be staffed by employees in relevant fields such as geology or environmental sciences however, none had such backgrounds. Instead, the staff consisted primarily of college students studying fields such as fashion merchandising and music education. Their previous jobs included work as lifeguards and as employees for McDonalds, Tropical Smoothie, Mr. Taco and at Winn Dixie stores.

The report stated that 25 to 30 percent of the responses to inquiries may have included “significant errors,” and “such problems in many cases could lead to significant financial loss to the customer, including but not limited to the wrongful denial of insurance coverage at the time of a loss.”

According to the Post article, a FEMA official acknowledged that during the first few months of the center 's operation last fall some staff members “did have performance issues, resulting in some misinformation being provided to callers.”

In July, experts warned a House Subcommittee that FEMA’s map modernization program was digitizing obsolete data. FEMA’s Acting Insurance Administrator David Maurstad countered that in many cases maps do not necessarily change over time. However, experts unanimously agree that floodplains do change as a result of land clearing associated with development, erosion, and other factors. FEMA’s maps have an average age over well over ten years, with some experts claiming the average age is eighteen years. One expert testified to “garbage in, garbage out” in regards to the modernization program.

Ranking Committee member Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) questioned Mr. Maurstad regarding a series of interrogatories and document requests that committee members made to FEMA on the record in May 2005. One of the requests was for audits regarding the mapping program. According to committee members, FEMA has refused to turn over any such documents.

Robert James, who wrote the audits, says that two versions existed because he had been asked to “tone down” his original findings. He said that after FEMA’s contractor received the audit, they “basically wanted me to rip the guts out of the document."

He said the audits are backed up by 1,200 pages of documentation, plus extensive CDs, emails and audio recordings.

On August 4, 2005, the National Journal’s Technology Daily reported that House appropriators moved to freeze FEMA’s mapping funds at the current level “ because they said they were misled by officials”.

"The problems within FEMA are very broad, and they are systemic," James said.

"People weren't reviewing things; people weren't asking questions on how work was being accomplished, people weren't being held accountable."

Even if FEMA had properly trained staff responding to floodplain inquiries, they likely would give incorrect information in many cases due to the obsolete flood maps. As a result, people in harm's way may be told their property is not at risk of flooding, while conversely, people not in a floodplain may be told that they are.

 

Last Modified: 100205 1429

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