Effective floodplain management
"Effective floodplain management demands local jurisdictions be creative in their approaches, efficient in their performance and comprehensive in their efforts."
From ASFPM’s Floodplain Management 2016: Local Programs
There is no one "perfect" model for effective local floodplain management programs. Every local program has unique characteristics that shape the community's approach to managing flood risks and floodplain resources. The geologic and geographic variability of floodplains and the variability of risks can be significant. In addition, the constitutionally established relationships between states and communities also differ considerably from state to state. Program components that work well in one state or community may not be effective in others.
Above all, a program is effective if it meets its articulated goals. For communities in the NFIP, this typically starts with the NFIP goals (listed in Section D). Localities then build on those goals by adding their own community-specific findings and purposes. Communities that participate in the NFIP and remain in good standing in the program share the following goals:
Improving effective floodplain management
Importantly, local floodplain management programs that incorporate higher standards more effectively achieve flood damage reduction than those that rely only on the NFIP minimum requirements.
- Protect public health, safety and welfare and reduce the adverse effects of flooding on people and property
- Enable property owners to purchase NFIP flood insurance policies, required by federally insured and regulated mortgage lenders
- Satisfy requirements of many federal grants and loans that support development in mapped floodplains
- Qualify for post-disaster federal financial assistance to repair damaged community-owned buildings in mapped floodplains
- Qualify for federal hazard mitigation grant funds to undertake projects that reduce vulnerability to future flood damage
Whose program is it?
Sometimes people call local floodplain management programs "the FEMA program," but communities regulate floodplains, not the federal government. Your community’s floodplain management program is your program. Careful administration of your program not only helps protect people and property; it also ensures that your community fulfills its commitments to the NFIP. Those commitments may have been made years ago when the governing body passed resolutions of intent to join the NFIP. Also consider that, if you know your community has areas subject to flooding that aren’t shown on FEMA’s map, shouldn’t those areas be regulated to achieve the same goals stated for regulating mapped floodplains?
36. What are the defining characteristics of the minimum floodplain management regulations adopted by communities?
For floodplain management purposes, what is the definition of development?
Local regulations use the NFIP definition for development: "any man made change to improved or unimproved real estate, including but not limited to buildings or other structures, mining, dredging, filling, grading, paving, excavation or drilling operations or storage of equipment or materials."
Local floodplain management regulations govern development in mapped floodplains. Importantly, the regulations consider both the impact of flooding on development (e.g., to minimize damage to buildings) and the impact of development on flooding (e.g., to avoid increasing flood levels or diverting floodwater onto adjacent properties).
Your local floodplain management regulations have as their base the NFIP regulations, which establish minimum requirements for development in mapped floodplains. These requirements are based on the type of flooding (riverine or coastal) and level of detail shown on FEMA maps. The requirements for new buildings, existing buildings, development other than buildings, and development that changes the land are briefly described below.
Are minimums good enough for your community?
The NFIP minimum requirements are just that – the minimum necessary to participate in the NFIP. Many communities – especially those anticipating changing conditions in the future – decide the minimums aren’t sufficient to protect public safety and property. Some of the most common higher standards adopted by flood prone communities are described in Section H.
New Buildings. Defining characteristics of compliant new buildings:
- Lowest floor elevated to or above the flood level in Zone A/AE, and bottom of lowest horizontal structural member of the lowest floor to or above the flood level in Zone V/VE
- Foundations that resist flood forces
- Enclosures below elevated buildings are not occupied and used only for parking, storage and building access and have flood openings (Zone A/AE) or breakaway walls (Zone V, coastal floodplains with breaking waves)
- Flood damage-resistant materials below the flood level
- Equipment and machinery elevated to or above the flood level
- In Zone A/AE, nonresidential buildings may be designed to be watertight (dry floodproofed) if properly designed for specific locations
- In coastal high hazard areas, called Zone V/VE, foundation design and elevation requirements are more stringent because of the added forces of wave action
Building codes include floodplain management requirements.
FEMA reports that, as of September 2019, 47% of flood-prone jurisdictions in the United States are flood-resistant based on their adoption of building codes. Some building codes include provisions that exceed the NFIP minimums (e.g., require higher elevation), and some provisions are more specific than the NFIP requirements. Communities must enforce the more restrictive requirements, whether in building codes or local regulations.
Considering amending your community’s regulations?
Be sure to contact your NFIP state coordinator for advice. It is very important to have the NFIP state coordinator or the FEMA regional office review proposed changes to regulations well in advance of adoption.
Improvements that cost more than 50 percent of market value are allowed.
It is imprecise to describe the substantial improvement requirement by saying improvements that cost more than 50 percent of market value of an existing building "are not allowed." Costlier improvements are allowed, as long as the "50 percent rule" is enforced and existing buildings are brought into compliance with the requirements for new buildings.
Existing Buildings. Requirements are triggered by improvements or repairs:
- Nonconforming (existing) buildings are allowed to remain until proposed improvements or repairs trigger the requirement to bring the buildings into compliance with all of the requirements for new buildings.
- Floodplain managers must determine whether proposed improvements are substantial improvements and whether damaged buildings have incurred substantial damage.
- Sometimes called the "50 percent rule," the triggers are:
- Substantial improvement, which is when the cost of improvements (alterations, renovations, additions) equals or exceeds 50 percent of the market value of the building before the improvements are made.
- Substantial damage, which is when the cost to repair a building damaged by any cause (flood, wind, fire, earthquake, neglect, etc.) to its before-damaged condition equals or exceeds 50 percent of the market value of the building before the damage occurred.
- Historic structures may be repaired or improved without strict adherence to new building requirements if the work will allow the structures to retain the historic designation.
Answers to Questions about Substantially Improved/Substantially Damaged Buildings (FEMA 213).
Citizens, builders, engineers, architects and others, including community officials, need answers to questions about pertinent definitions and the regulations that apply to existing buildings. FEMA 213 provides brief answers, and refers readers to specific sections for more complete guidance in FEMA P-758, Substantial Improvement/Substantial Damage Desk Reference.
Development other than buildings is also regulated.
With so much focus on regulating buildings in mapped floodplains, too often floodplain managers and others don’t pay enough attention to development other than buildings. Structures such as towers, pavilions, viewing stands, and ground-mounted solar installations can be damaged by flooding.
Structures Other than Buildings. General requirements apply to development other than buildings because the definition of development captures "any man-made change to improved or unimproved real estate." Development includes activities that change the land through grading, filling, or excavation and structures such as communication towers, gazebos and music venue stages, outdoor sculptures, road bridges and culverts, pedestrian bridges, outdoor viewing bleachers, membrane structures over pools and tennis courts, playground equipment and picnic tables, domes for road salt, solar panels for solar farms and any other structure. Development other than buildings should:
- Be located and constructed to minimize flood damage
- Meet encroachment limitations if located in a regulated floodway
- Be anchored to prevent flotation, collapse or lateral movement resulting from hydrostatic loads, including the effects of buoyancy, during conditions of flooding
- Be constructed of flood damage-resistant materials
- Have mechanical, plumbing, and electrical systems elevated or designed to prevent water from entering or accumulating within the components during flooding
- Take into consideration potential impacts of hazardous materials
Development that Changes the Land. General requirements apply to development activities that change the land in mapped floodplains because the broad definition of development captures "any man-made change to improved or unimproved real estate." Activities that change the land involve mining, dredging, filling, grading, paving, excavation, drilling operations, storage of equipment and materials, and roads that involve fill. Working the land for agricultural purposes is not considered development that changes the land, but fences and other structures are regulated.
The primary consideration when evaluating proposals to change the land in mapped floodplains is whether the activity will encroach into mapped floodways or into mapped floodplains along riverine watercourses that do not have mapped floodways. Engineering analyses may be required to examine the effect of floodway encroachments to determine whether flood depths would be increased if the development is allowed.
Infrastructure and Utilities. General requirements apply to development activities in mapped floodplains that involve installing or replacing infrastructure and utilities, including roads, bridges, culverts, drainage ways, water supply facilities (treatment plants, pumping stations, and distribution pipes), wastewater facilities (treatment plants, pumping stations, and collection pipes), natural gas distribution, and telephone, cable and fiber optic wiring systems.
Whose responsibility is it?
"Elected officials often see floodplain management and the National Flood Insurance Program as a federal program, not related to their daily needs or local issues."
The NFIP requires all development to be constructed by methods and practices that minimize flood damage. For floodplain management purposes:
- Roads, bridges and culverts should be evaluated to determine whether they will encroach into mapped floodways or into mapped floodplains along riverine watercourses that do not have mapped floodways. Engineering analyses are required to examine the effect of encroachments to determine whether flood depths are increased.
- New and replacement water supply systems must be designed to minimize or eliminate infiltration of floodwater into the systems.
- New and replacement sanitary sewage systems must be designed to minimize or eliminate infiltration of floodwater into the systems and discharges from the systems into floodwater.
- All underground components of utility systems should be located to minimize damage by flooding, including scour and erosion.
In 2016, ASFPM surveyed local floodplain managers and produced a summary report of the findings. Among the 47 survey questions were questions that gave respondents the opportunity to identify common obstacles, types of assistance needed, and the "one tool" needed to improve local efforts. Common themes of interest to local elected officials emerged:
- Lack of awareness of local requirements (by residents and contractors)
- Elected officials who are unfamiliar with floodplain management requirements
- Not enough time to focus on flood mitigation (too many hats, part time)
- Not enough staff and funding for program administration
- Lack of training and the need for training delivered locally or online
- Lack of cooperation from other departments
- Need help educating elected officials and community management about the importance of floodplain management
- Need the support of community leadership and legal department
- Need better citizen awareness and help with public outreach and education
- Need more support from elected officials
- Need better access to informed and responsive state program staff
- Need updated floodplain management ordinance
Every community has constraints in terms of budget and priorities. Elected officials can work with staff to evaluate the adequacy of tools and training to effectively manage their local programs to achieve the community's overall goals and fulfill commitments to the NFIP.
Researching answers to the following questions in conjunction with the information provided in this Guide will help you understand your community's approach toward managing flood hazards and identify ways to strengthen your program:
- Are your colleagues familiar with why we regulate mapped floodplains and that what we do impacts future damage and risk to citizens?
- Do incoming elected officials get briefed on floodplain management and flood hazards in our community?
- What can we do to help citizens, developers and contractors understand our flood hazards and the value of complying with the floodplain management regulations?
- Do we have the right staff position designated as our floodplain manager and is more staff support needed?
- Does our floodplain manager have the right training to do the job and appropriate funding for periodic training and networking?
- Are our different departments and staff with roles in floodplain management working together?
- Should we update our regulations? What requirements that exceed the NFIP (or state) minimum requirements should we consider?
- Does our NFIP state coordinator have the staff and funding needed to support communities throughout the state?
Most flood–prone communities participate in the NFIP.
Alexandria, VA, and Fairbanks North Star Borough, AK, were the first communities to join the NFIP in the early 1970s. By 1973, nearly 1,000 had joined. As of late 2018, more than 22,300 communities participate, while about 2,000 communities identified as flood-prone elect not to join and nearly 200 are suspended.
When your community joined the NFIP, commitments were made to adopt flood hazard information (studies and maps), adopt floodplain management regulations, and administer and enforce those regulations. Your community also agreed to help FEMA delineate mapped floodplains, to notify FEMA when community boundaries change, and to maintain certain records available for public inspection.
To effectively manage flood risk, communities must have clear and enforceable regulations, their citizens should be aware of flood risks, and they should consider a variety of damage reduction program elements that go beyond just issuing permits for development. Program effectiveness depends on qualified management and support personnel. Importantly, successful and effective floodplain management programs are understood and supported by elected officials. Some of the ways that you can support a strong floodplain management program in your community are described below.
Designate the Right Floodplain Manager. The office or official responsible for administering adopted floodplain management regulations is usually called the "floodplain manager" or "floodplain administrator." The position is identified in regulations, and usually is authorized to delegate performance of certain duties to other offices and employees. The floodplain manager is the primary point of contact between the state and the community and between FEMA and the community.
No one position is the "right" floodplain manager for every community. Your community's selection may depend on several factors, such as the degree of flood risk, the nature of existing and anticipated development, and whether guiding development to less hazard-prone areas is an objective. Given the breadth of responsibilities and how managing flood risks should be woven into multiple local government functions, your community's floodplain manager should be in a position to work across departments.
Important Knowledge, Skills and Abilities for Floodplain Managers
- Ability to establish and maintain effective working relationships with staff in other departments, elected officials, the regulated community and the general public
- Able to prepare clear and concise reports and make public presentations to explain complex concepts
- Understand that failure to fully enforce regulations puts people and property at risk, and may increase financial burdens on property owners if buildings are not fully compliant
Also see the ASFPM Model Job Description for a Community Floodplain Manager.
Common floodplain manager designations include:
- The building official is a common choice, reflecting the focus on regulating buildings in mapped floodplains.
- The head of the planning and zoning department, or a lead planner is a common choice, especially in communities that use a variety of tools to guide development to less hazard-prone locations, such as overlay zoning, setbacks and density limitations.
- The head of the public works department or the city engineer was selected by many communities in the early years of the NFIP, in part because of the focus on developing flood hazard studies and maps.
- Smaller NFIP communities that do not have multiple departments may rely on the chief administrative officer or a town clerk to fulfill many responsibilities, including administering floodplain management requirements.
Designation of the floodplain manager
ASFPM’s 2016 survey of local floodplain management programs found that designated floodplain managers in many small and rural communities are elected officials (2.3 percent of respondents), clerks (8.2 percent) and treasurers, finance officers and auditors (1.8 percent).
Some small communities establish interagency agreements with counties or larger municipalities to fulfill some or all permitting functions. Interagency agreements should be in writing. However, some floodplain management responsibilities cannot be delegated because each NFIP community has a formal relationship with the NFIP and is ultimately responsible.
Acknowledge Floodplain Manager Responsibilities. Elected officials should acknowledge the breadth of responsibilities fulfilled by floodplain managers and, in many communities, the amount of time and resources necessary to implement effective programs. Local floodplain management regulations authorize floodplain managers to administer and enforce the regulations, and they are authorized to render interpretations consistent with the intent and purpose of the regulations. Even if not stated explicitly, managers are authorized to coordinate with other community offices to fulfill the commitments to the NFIP and to enforce the regulations.
You strengthen your community's commitment to public health, safety and welfare and property protection when you take the time to understand these responsibilities and the importance of supporting your floodplain manager. The more you know, the better you can avoid inadvertently undermining your community's responsibilities. Poor enforcement can lead to sanctions imposed by the NFIP (see Question 39 to learn what can happen if community fails to meet NFIP commitments).
Responsibilities of floodplain managers, summarized in the table below, generally relate to administrative functions, coordination with other offices and agencies, and review of development in flood hazard areas.
Responsibilities of Floodplain Managers
|Administration and Coordination|
Support your Floodplain Manager. Now that you know what is expected of your community's floodplain manager – and have a basic understanding of the requirements (see Question 36) – consider how best to answer constituents who object to regulations or suggest a rule shouldn't apply to them. You may find it useful to ask your floodplain manager to provide a brief memo to explain the applicable rules. See Question 40 for advice on what to do when someone challenges a finding that their property is in the regulated floodplain or asks you about waiving requirements or obtaining a variance.
One of the most important ways elected officials can support their floodplain managers is to approve funds for training and professional development. A growing number of communities expect their floodplain managers to become Certified Floodplain Managers. The national CFM® program is developed and administered by ASFPM. Some ASFPM state and regional chapters administer their own CFM programs.
After a flood, your floodplain manager and building department will probably need extra support to do the necessary work. They'll need to tour flooded areas, perform safety inspections, collect data to make substantial damage determinations, brief citizens about permit requirements, help property owners figure out mitigation options, issue permits, and inspect construction. Remember, long-term recovery for larger disasters can take a toll on staff, especially if they were personally impacted.
Maintain Awareness of Ongoing Responsibilities to the NFIP. You should know that the FEMA Regions and NFIP state coordinators regularly visit or contact communities to conduct Community Assistance Visits (CAVs) and Community Assistance Contacts (CACs). CAVs serve the dual purpose of providing technical assistance to community officials and assuring that communities adequately enforce adopted floodplain management regulations. CACs serve the same purposes, but typically are limited to telephone contact.
Generally, a CAV is initiated by contacting the floodplain manager to schedule a meeting. Confirmation letters are sent to the chief executive officer requesting the presence of appropriate personnel. The visit consists of a tour of the floodplain, inspection of permit files, and meetings with floodplain managers and other community staff. Elected officials may attend. After the visit, a report summarizing the findings is prepared and delivered to the community. If administrative problems or potential violations are identified during the visit, the community will be notified and given the opportunity to correct problems and remedy violations to the maximum extent possible within established deadlines. FEMA or the NFIP state coordinator will work with the community to achieve compliance. In cases where a community does not achieve satisfactory resolution, FEMA may initiate enforcement actions, which may result in probation or suspension from the NFIP (see Question 39).
Floods are America's most frequent and most costly natural disasters, affecting every state and nearly every local jurisdiction. The NFIP takes seriously community commitments and responsibilities to enforce floodplain management regulations to manage flood hazards. The NFIP has two levels of enforcement sanctions when communities fail to meet their commitments:
- Probation may be imposed when communities fail to adequately enforce local floodplain management regulations, improperly grant variances, fail to remedy identified problems with regulations and program administration, or fail to remedy identified violations to the extent feasible. NFIP policyholders are notified of the causes for probation and must pay a $50 per year surcharge. Failure to enforce regulations may also create liability, especially if that failure results in harm to people and property (see Question 23).
- Suspension may be imposed for failure to adopt effective Flood Insurance Studies and Flood Insurance Rate Maps, failure to adopt compliant regulations, and continued failure to resolve issues that led to probation. Suspension means communities are no longer participating in the NFIP, which means new flood insurance policies cannot be purchased and existing policies cannot be renewed. Other consequences are described in Question 23.
40. What options do I have when a property owner asks for relief from the floodplain management requirements?
Your community's floodplain management regulations include criteria for considering variances. A variance is, in effect, official permission to undertake development in ways that are contrary to or prohibited by regulations. Having the ability to provide relief under very narrow circumstances allows communities to:
- Preserve the purpose and intent of the regulations
- Minimize legal challenges to the regulations and avoid unconstitutional taking of private property without just compensation
- Protect the safety, health, and welfare of the public and emergency responders
When someone requests a variance, ask your floodplain manager to go over the criteria and conditions for variances that are in your local regulations. The variance criteria and conditions in your floodplain management regulations flow from the NFIP regulations at Title 44 CFR Section 60.6. You can go to FEMA P-993, Floodplain Management Bulletin: Variances and the National Flood Insurance Program, for a description of the NFIP regulations and some common situations where variances may be requested. In some cases, NFIP state coordinators may be able to provide written comments for consideration by your community's variance review board.
Variances should be rare.
In a 2016 survey of 810 local floodplain managers conducted by ASFPM, fewer than 7 percent indicated having received requests for variances in the year before the survey.
There are several important things to keep in mind when considering a variance:
- Variances to requirements intended to protect property and public safety should be rare.
- Variances to floodplain management requirements must be granted only after careful consideration of the pertinent factors, including whether compliance creates an exceptional hardship unique to the property (and not the property owner) and whether there is good and sufficient cause to grant the request.
- Financial hardship is not a sufficient cause to issue a variance.
- Granting variances may put people and property at risk, including owners of adjacent properties.
One of the more common requests is to waive or reduce the requirement to elevate buildings. Not only would this put the building, the owner, and future owners, at risk of future flood damage, it results in much higher NFIP flood insurance premiums, even in the rare circumstance that a variance can be justified. The premium for a building that is 3 feet below the required elevation may be as much as $20,000 (see graphic). While the property owner requesting a variance may not want or be required to buy flood insurance, such high premiums may discourage future buyers.
Communities that grant variances may be subject to a higher level of scrutiny by FEMA and states during Community Assistance Visits. If a pattern and practice of improperly granting variances is found, and if appropriate resolution of identified problems is not undertaken, FEMA may choose to impose sanctions. Question 39 describes the sanctions and how citizens would be impacted.
Your first stop is your community's floodplain manager. Many questions about interpreting and administering floodplain management regulations are answered in FEMA guidance documents. The Resources section of this Guide includes a list of the most commonly accessed FEMA publications.
Conferences, workshops and webinars are hosted by ASFPM and its 37 state and regional chapters (shown below). Your NFIP state coordinator can help with unusual questions, as can FEMA regional office staff. State hazard mitigation officers can provide guidance about hazard mitigation planning and mitigation projects, including potential sources of funding.
How do NFIP State Coordinators Support Communities? Each governor designates an agency to be the NFIP state coordinating agency, usually called the NFIP state coordinator. While the role of this agency varies among states, common activities that support community programs include the following:
- Provide general technical assistance to community officials in the administration and enforcement of local floodplain management regulations
- Review local regulations, including amendments, to ensure the requirements meet or exceed the minimum requirements of the NFIP
- Support FEMA's flood hazard map revision processes
- Conduct Community Assistance Contacts and Community Assistance Visits according to criteria established by FEMA to provide assistance to communities, identify community needs, and evaluate community programs
- Deliver or participate in training for local officials, design professionals and developers
- Suggest federal agencies other than FEMA that may provide assistance (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Natural Resources Conservation Service and U.S. Geological Survey).
- A number of states have floodplain management statutes and regulations and operate floodplain management permit programs.
- Many states have requirements that are more stringent than the NFIP minimum regulations for development.
- Some NFIP state coordinators provide comments when communities receive requests for variances from their floodplain management requirements.
How do FEMA Regional Offices Help States and Communities Manage Floodplains? The FEMA regional offices have a responsibility to ensure communities in their regions adopt and enforce compliant floodplain management regulations that meet or exceed the minimum NFIP requirements. Regional office staff also:
- Provide technical assistance to NFIP state coordinating agencies and communities
- Conduct Community Assistance Contacts and Community Assistance Visits to provide assistance to communities, identify community needs and evaluate community programs
- Undertake enforcement actions when non-compliant communities are identified
- Participate in identifying mapping needs and the map revision processes