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Hundreds of thousands of Florida homes lie in flood-risk areas not recognized by FEMA's flood maps, research group says

That leaves many homeowners vulnerable to massive out-of-pocket costs for damage after Hurricane Ian.
Damaged homes in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers Beach, Fla
Damaged homes in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers Beach, Fla., on Thursday.Wilfredo Lee / AP

Hundreds of thousands of Florida homes lie in flood-risk areas that are not designated as such by the federal government, leaving many homeowners vulnerable to massive out-of-pocket costs for damage after Hurricane Ian

Nearly 350,000 properties in the state face flood hazards but are not recognized as high risks in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood maps, according to data by First Street Foundation, a nonprofit research group.

More than half, about 186,000, are in hard-hit areas along Florida’s west coast, where residents were given mandatory evacuation orders.

"Many very likely will not have flood insurance because they would not have been told they’re at risk for flooding,” said Matthew Eby, First Street Foundation's CEO. “With a storm of this magnitude, the impacts of that are going to be catastrophic to those homeowners.”

Ian is one of the most powerful storms to hit the United States. After making landfall Wednesday, the Category 4 hurricane decimated many areas, although the full scope of its destruction is still unknown.

In Charlotte County, where at least six people were killed in the storm, more than 50,000 at-risk homes are not accounted for by FEMA’s maps, First Street Foundation’s data shows.

An additional 48,500 homes are at risk in Lee County, where officials say damage caused by Ian is extensive in Cayo Costa, Fort Myers and Cape Coral. Another 51,500 are in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, where Tampa and St. Petersburg are located, the nonprofit said.

Those without flood insurance may face exorbitant expenses, upward of $50,000, to make structural repairs and get rid of mold, experts said. That does not include costs to replace damaged appliances, furniture and belongings.

“It’s almost limitless," said Jennifer Lizardi, a manager with the Neighborhood Housing Services of South Florida, a nonprofit that helps prospective homebuyers.

FEMA says just one inch of floodwater can cause up to $25,000 in damage. The average paid loss from Hurricane Harvey, which devastated Texas in 2017, was $116,800, the Insurance Information Institute said.

Flooding is the nation's most common and costly natural disaster, yet many are ill-prepared for it, the institute said.

A 2020 survey conducted by the group found that 27% of all American homeowners insurance policyholders said they had flood insurance. And Wharton’s Risk Management and Decision Processes Center similarly found that, on average, 30% of homes in the highest-risk areas nationwide have flood coverage.

Before closing on a property, mortgage lenders require homebuyers within FEMA's flood zones to purchase additional flood insurance. But some first-time homeowners who do not face that mandate may choose not to, largely due to high premiums, on top of other overwhelming closing costs, Lizardi said.

“It’s out of sight, out of mind. That would be your normal scenario," she said. "If I'm not in a flood zone, I don't need to worry about it. That's one less expense that I have."

Others may opt out of flood insurance due to a lack of awareness. About 56% of consumers incorrectly assumed floods would be covered by their homeowners’ policies, according to a 2021 survey by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

People who recently moved to Florida may also lack the knowledge about flood risks that locals have come to have, said John Pantoja, COO and Controller at Neighborhood Housing Services of South Florida.

In the first full year of the pandemic, Florida’s population grew by nearly 361,000 residents — the strongest annual increase since 2006, according to Florida’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research (EDR), a research arm of the state Legislature.

“It’s going to be a learning process,” Pantoja said. "Those who come down here, they'll have that shocking experience in the beginning."

Eby said that is partially why it is critical for people to have accurate and up-to-date information to determine their true flood vulnerabilities.

First Street Foundation said it factors in heavy rainfall, the impact of small waterways flooding and climate change, and updates its models annually, while FEMA does not.

A 2017 investigation by the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General found that FEMA "needs to improve its management and oversight of flood mapping projects to achieve or reassess its program goals and ensure the production of accurate and timely flood maps."

FEMA did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. On its website, the agency said it "consistently releases new flood maps and data, giving communities across America access to helpful, authoritative data that they can use to make decisions about flood risk."

However, FEMA's flood maps are not the only way homeowners can educate themselves about potential risk, Michael Barry, a spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute, said.

“There’s a lot of data out there that talks about flood risk, besides the information that FEMA puts together,” he said.

For example, Barry said, homebuyers should request a Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange, or CLUE, report, which can inform them of up to seven years of claims.

Massive flooding events will likely continue to be more frequent and more destructive because of climate change, which will only put more homes at risk, Eby said.

"We need to be thinking about these things now, " he said.