Map Updates in Coastal Regions

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has a congressional mandate to update flood maps for all coastal regions of the US, a long-term process that has already begun in many states, including Virginia. The maps are based on better data and will give a more accurate depiction of risk. Under the Biggert-Waters Act map updates would trigger rate increases, but that provision was repealed. Under the Grimm-Waters Act, policyholders mapped into a Special Flood Hazard Area (zones A and V) will be charged their original low rate for one year and then will experience annual rate increases based on the new flood zone. 

To see if your flood maps are being updated in Virginia, look for your locality here. Look for the line that says “Final Effective FIRM” below your locality name to see the projected date for your new maps to become effective. All maps for coastal Virginia should begin the update process by mid-2014 and finish before 2017. 


Accessing Digital Flood Maps

Digital maps can be accessed in multiple ways. Please note that these maps are not always up-to-date if new maps have been recently adopted. Check with your community floodplain manager to find out what the date is for the most recent effective maps and where to find them.

National Flood Hazard Layer: This is the most user-friendly way to access and use a flood map, but flood maps are not yet available for all localities in this platform. To locate the flood map for your structure, type your address into the upper right search bar that says “Find address or place”. You may need to choose a basemap to make the map readable – do this by clicking “Basemap” in the upper left and making a selection – we find that “Imagery” works well. Next, you want to make sure you can see the legend, which is your guide to flood zones. Under “Details” (to the left of “Basemap”), choose the legend icon.

Map Service Center: All digital maps are available from FEMA’s Map Service Center, so if your community’s maps are not available in the National Flood Hazard Layer, you can use the Map Service Center. To locate the flood map for your structure, type in your address. When the map shows up, choose "view" on the left to view the relevant map panel. You can also use this link to learn more about how to find and read a map using this website.

Check your community website to see if flood maps are posted there (if maps are not obvious, search for “flood maps” in the search bar). Many websites now have a series of maps available through Geographic Information Systems (GIS), which may display FIRMs. These systems work in different ways, but you typically have to agree to terms in order to use them, select visible “layers” (you’ll need to choose the layer relevant to flood maps/FIRMs), and then use a search function to search for your property.

Accessing Paper Flood Maps

Paper versions of your community’s Flood Insurance Rate Maps are available at your local government offices. These are likely the most up-to-date maps available for your community. Talk to your community floodplain manager to find out how to access them. For more detailed information on using paper maps, use FEMA’s FIRM Tutorial. Please note that some map features have changed since this tutorial was published. 


Other digital FIRM Resources:

 FEMA Region III Flood Information Portal: This page has data for localities in Region III (which includes Virginia) in the midst of their current round of map updates. This site offers the unique ability to compare old and new or preliminary digital flood maps side-by-side so that you can easily see changes in flood zones on your property. You can also search by address and overlay FIRMs on satellite imagery. This is an excellent site, but not all localities are available as of early 2014.

FEMA’s Preliminary Flood Hazard Data also allows the user to view the updated preliminary maps before they become effective. These maps are available for review for a number of months both online and at your local government offices. To use this website, follow the “location” link and then choose your state, county, and city. A list of all preliminary flood map panels for your community will come up; choose the map with “IND” in its name to look at the map index to figure out which map panel applies to your property. This index map is normally the first or last map on the page. This site also allows for download of data for use with Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

If your locality is not listed, try the FEMA Region III Flood Information Portal (link above) or visit your local government offices to look at paper maps.

Flood Risk Information System for Virginia, North Carolina, and Alabama (with more states being added): FIRMs can be accessed and overlaid on satellite imagery, search by address is available, and maps and data can be exported and downloaded. Please note, however, that the satellite imagery does not always match up with the flood maps.

Reading Your Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM)

In order to determine your flood risk, whether you will be required by your mortgage company to obtain flood insurance, and to estimate generally if your rates will be high or low, you need to know which flood zone your property is located in. You may also need to determine the elevation of your structure if it is located in the high-risk Special Flood Hazard Area

After you have accessed your flood map, you need to determine which flood zone you are in (see glossary for zone definitions). If your FIRM is not laid over an aerial image, use the roads and other features drawn on the maps to identify the location of your property. If your FIRM is laid over an aerial image, it should be easier to identify the location of your property and structures within the flood zone based on the imagery.

Flood zones on the maps are typically differentiated by color (or shading) and letter. Maps vary, but in most cases a legend is available to help identify different zones. You can identify your flood zone by comparing the color/shading on your property to the legend, or by looking for a zone letter (X, A, V etc.) within the boundaries of the zone where your property is located. If you are looking at a digital map like the National Flood Hazard Layer, the zone name may relate to the probability of flooding. For example, the map may show the “0.2% annual chance” flood zone, which is also known as the shaded X-zone, which includes the extent of the 500-year flood. The “1% annual chance” zone applies to the A- and V-zones, known as the Special Flood Hazard Area.

Map Tip: If your property is located in the Special Flood Hazard Area (an A- or V-zone), a base flood elevation will most likely be identified. This is written on the FIRMs as “EL #”, where the “#” is a number of feet that varies by location. This is the expected height of water (in feet) during a flood that has a 1% chance of occurring in any given year (and a 26% chance of occurring over the course of a 30-year mortgage). This 1% annual chance is what FEMA uses as a benchmark for a high-consequence flood that has a reasonable chance of occurring. If your property is located in the Special Flood Hazard Area, your flood insurance rate will be charged based on the elevation of your house in relation to the base flood elevation. You will need an elevation certificate to accurately determine the elevation of your structure. 

Map Tip: If multiple flood zones cross your property, your flood insurance rate will be charged based on the highest-risk zone that touches your structure. Even if a small corner of your structure touches a higher-risk zone, you will be charged as if your whole structure were in that zone. If you are mapped into a Special Flood Hazard Area (zones A and V), and you have a federally-backed mortgage, you may be required to obtain flood insurance in order to keep your mortgage.

Map Tip: If you disagree with the flood zone in which you are located, you may dispute it. While the maps are in the preliminary phase, you can try to get your flood zone changed by paying to have special flood studies conducted on your property. You may also work with FEMA to change the flood zone designation after the maps have become effective. You will likely need to hire a surveyor to take more precise measurements of your property if you do not already have an elevation certificate. You may submit an application for a Letter of Map Amendment, Letter of Map Change, or Letter of Map Revision to have your property removed from the Special Flood Hazard Area. Talk to your community floodplain manager for guidance on this process. For more information, click here.