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How to Read a FEMA Flood Map

As evidenced by current conditions in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia related to Hurricane Florence, flooding claims lives, inflicts financial losses on households and businesses and strains the government agencies that provide flood response and release. Flooding is the most expensive and most frequent natural disaster in the U.S. It is critical for individuals and businesses to gain awareness of the chances of flooding in their area.

Homeowners and communities need to know their risk of being impacted by flooding. When you know your risk, you can take steps to protect yourself, your family and your property. Flood maps play a vital role in helping to prepare for flooding. For example, you may be required legally to get flood insurance if you live in the highest risk areas. However, flooding can happen anywhere – about 20 percent of flood claims come from areas with low risk, including areas that are not close to any body of water.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is the official public source of flood information. FEMA flood maps are updated regularly and show the long-term probability of flooding for areas across the U.S. The focus of flood maps are geographic areas that have been defined according to varying levels of the risk and type of flooding, referred to as flood zones.

Flood maps are a useful tool for preparing for the chance of flooding in your area. You can get a flood map from FEMA’s map service center or at your local government planning or zoning office. Flood maps can be a little tricky to understand, so here are 16 steps you can use as a guide to make it easier to read one.

  1. Start with the index page

The index is a separate sheet of paper that lists each community followed by a corresponding panel number. The index has a range that indicates the number of panels that are included in the map. For example, 001-004 means the map has 4 panels.

  1. Lay out paper panels

If your map is printed, you may need to lay your map out before you can read it. A flat flood map will have multiple pages. Z-fold maps are similar to road maps that fold out into one large map.

  1. Identify the panel number

Each panel of the map will have a title box, typically in the lower right corner. The title box contains the community name, the date the map was made and other identification information.

  1. Use the grid coordinates to find streets at risk of flooding

Each street that are at-risk for flooding will be listed on the index page. Use the coordinate pairs, such as A-1.

  1. Use landmarks to find specific locations on the map

Typically, flood maps don’t have a great deal of detail. However, you should be able to find major roads and landmarks, like bridges. These landmarks will be useful for estimating specific properties in the area.

  1. Use the scale to measure distance

Use the scale, usually a black and white bar, that will give you a sense of the actual locations between locations. Most of the time the scale will have a number 500 over it. This means that for every 1 inch that you measure on the map will correspond with 500 feet. To find a specific location, measure how far it is from a landmark.

  1. Review the map’s inset for special areas

Some areas have complicated flood zones. These will be listed in a panel on the map. Read the index page for more information.

  1. Check the map’s footnotes

Footnotes are printed at the bottom of some of the flood maps. If there is a footnote, it will inform you that the community is not at high-risk for flooding.

  1. Use the legend

The legend will help you understand what the map symbols mean. For example, a dark line will be a high-risk flood zone boundary. A lighter line will be a lesser-risk flood zone boundary. Note that symbols can be different on various maps, so always take the time to review the legend.

  1. Zone labels will designate the flood risk

The legend will explain what the zone designations mean. Most maps have the following designations:

A = high risk of flooding

V = high risk areas in coastal regions

D = minimal flooding risk

X = less risk

AE = legend and map provide extra information about the flooding severity and protective barriers in the area

  1. Look for double lines or dots

Double lines or dots represent water barriers, like levees or a seawall.

  1. Look for solid black lines

Solid black lines mark the boundaries of bodies of water, like rivers or lakes. Slash marks between the double lines and solid lines are areas that need to be kept clear in order for the water to drain.

  1. Look for wavy lines

Wavy lines represent different flood elevation levels in bodies of water, like rivers. They are used if the base flood elevation measurement differs from place to place along the water. Each area will have a number that informs you how high the water is expected to rise if flooding occurs.

  1. Look for dark-colored areas

Dark-colored areas represent areas that are at high risk for flooding. These areas have what is called a 100-year flood risk, which means that the area has a 1 percent or greater chance of a serious flood every year. It does not mean that this area will flood every 100 years.

  1. Look for light-colored areas

Light-colored zones designate areas with less risk of flooding. They are considered at a 500-year flood risk, which means this area has a 2 percent likelihood to flood in a year.

  1. Look for colored areas with slash marks

Colored areas with slash marks designate areas that are protected by law because they have special requirements. Often they are areas like barrier islands or bodies of water. These areas have restricted building codes in order to reduce the risk of flooding.

A FEMA flood map is a valuable resource, especially if you are considering building or buying a home in an area that is at-risk for flooding. Understanding the flood hazard in your area will help you asses your risk for flooding from a river, storm tides, rainfall and topographic surveys. Most homeowners’ insurance policies do not include flood insurance; understanding your risks can help you make the right decisions for your business or personal insurance needs.

If you would like to discuss the risk for flooding in your area and potential need for flood insurance, contact an agent today to learn more.