Lack of flood insurance in Houston will lead to large losses following Hurricane Harvey

By David Jacobson, Temblor

See if you are in a flood zone

I-45 in Houston remains underwater following over three feet of rain in the city. (Photo from: Reuters)


As the remnants of Hurricane Harvey continue to dump rain on both southeast Texas and Louisiana, bringing further deluge to the city of Houston, people will soon be faced with the task of cleaning up, and recovering, which could take years. When we last wrote about Hurricane Harvey on Friday, Dr. Lauren Alexander Augustine said that flood insurance would be a major demarcation in how quickly people are able to recover. At that stage, the city of Houston was forecasted to receive between one and two feet of rain. Now however, up to 50 inches are expected in some portions of the city during the entire duration of the storm, meaning that flooded areas are not isolated to FEMA’s mandatory flood insurance zones. In fact, many of the striking images shown around the world are completely outside of all of FEMA’s flood zones. This phenomenon is not isolated to Hurricane Harvey, as the same was also the case in Hurricane Matthew and the Louisiana floods in 2016.

This Temblor map shows the FEMA flood map for the city of Houston. While not specifically designed for the impacts of hurricanes, this map highlights how susceptible to flooding Houston, the fourth largest city in the country, is.


Even though this scale of flooding appears to suggest that the FEMA flood maps are inadequate, Professor Nicholas Pinter at the University of California Davis has a slightly different take. Professor Pinter, who is the Associate Director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences believes that “US flood maps are not useless, but they are flawed. They take too long to roll out, take too long to be updated, and any update that adds an inch to floodprone land is usually vigorously opposed by local groups.” This means that the maps on which mandatory flood insurance is based may be outdated and not entirely representative of the level of flood risk. For example, new FEMA maps are often only made after there is new development or flood-control projects are completed. And even then, areas must be part of a FEMA-funded restudy or the community in question has to provide new information to FEMA. All of this means new flood maps do not come out frequently.

Many people in Houston were forced to evacuate their homes following over three feet of rainfall from Hurricane Harvey. (Photo from:


Adding to the problem is that even though there are mandatory flood insurance zones, this only applies to people who have a federal mortgage. If you don’t have a mortgage or are outside FEMA’s 100-year flood zones (zones in which FEMA estimates there is a 1 in 10 chance per decade of flooding), you aren’t required to carry flood insurance. Because of this, only 15% of households in Harris County, which is home to Houston, have flood insurance, according to a study conducted by the New York Times. This means that many people will be paying for flood damage completely out of pocket.

Thousands of homes in the Houston area have taken on many feet of water due to torrential rain from Hurricane Harvey. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)


Part of this problem, Professor Pinter said is that “flood maps in the US is that they are drawn as “lines in the sand” — at risk of flooding on one side, and A-OK on the other. That is a false and dangerous message to send. The best way to approach a line on a flood map is like a poisonous snake — don’t panic, but stay well clear.” While staying well clear may not be an option for everyone, the important message to take from this is that just because your house is not in a FEMA-designated “100 year flood zone” does not mean you are safe from flooding.

The greater message stressed by both Professor Pinter, and Dr. Lauren Alexander Augustine last week is greater resilience. If we become more resilient, either by carrying insurance or not living in flood plains, the lasting impacts of storms like Hurricane Harvey will significantly decrease.


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Communication with Professor Nicholas Pinter