New Flood Insurance Maps Will Raise Costs for Many Residents

FEMA's new maps will result in higher insurance premiums for many Boston property owners.

Talk to Brian Swett for half an hour and you’ll come away thinking you should quit your job and spend your time making preparations for when disaster strikes.

Swett is the City of Boston’s Chief of Environment, Energy, and Open Space, so he knows a thing or two about climate change, rising sea waters, and the increasing chance of inland flooding. According to Swett, there’s the potential for area sea levels to rise 6 to 16 inches by midcentury and by 2 to 4 feet by the year 2100. That would put much of downtown Boston under water.

The good news is, according to him, just about all of Boston is above sea level right now, so rising tides aren’t making much of difference. The bad news is that water comes in two forms: seawater from the ocean and freshwater from the sky, and we haven’t done much thus far to prepare for inland flooding.

It’s an important topic right now. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is in the process of revising flood maps to reflect current flood risks in coastal areas nationwide. Flood maps show the high‐risk areas where there is at least a 1 percent annual chance of flooding.

FEMA’s maps matter because they are used by lenders when determining whether property owners are required to take out flood insurance policies. If FEMA decides you live in a floodplain, you’re going to have to take out a flood insurance policy, and that can be costly.

The goal is to accurately predict where floods may happen in the future. FEMA previously updated its maps in 2009; its new approach in 2013 was to make it more active and predictive—in other words, the 500-year flood is now the 100-year flood. At the same time, FEMA needs to raise money for its depleted insurance fund, which is currently running a $20 billion deficit. It’s doing so by updating its maps, which will hopefully predict where future floods may happen.

Preliminary maps were released for Suffolk County by FEMA last fall. A 90 statutory appeal/comment period began in May and ends August 25. During this period, the public may comment on or appeal the mapping analysis by presenting in written form any scientific or technical data supporting their position. So far, the city has received an appeal from just one Boston resident.

The city has the option of filing an appeal itself and, according to Swett, officials are considering it, but even if it does, there’s no guarantee that FEMA will allow revised maps to be drawn.

Based on a review of the proposed maps, here are some of the locations and properties in Boston that FEMA believes are at risk of flooding sometime in the future:

  • Pleasure Bay (Castle Island)
  • Newmarket Square & South Bay (South of Boston City Hospital)
  • The Fens
  • North Station / TD Garden / Bulfinch Triangle
  • All of Lower Broadway below Dorchester Street, from West Fourth Street to Andrew Square
  • The Seaport District (all of it, save for the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center)
  • Bunker Hill Community College
  • The Financial District near International Place, including East India Wharf and the site of the proposed Chiofaro tower

Boston doesn’t stand still. Landfill projects during the 19th and 20th centuries and, more-recently, the depression of the Central Artery, have affected water flows. Large parts of Boston are on filled tidelands and tides didn’t used to get as high as they do today. The city is vulnerable, and over history, we’ve long dealt with issues of rising water (the floods of the mid-1800s, the Blizzard of ’78, Kenmore station in 1996, and the South End in 1999, to name a few). And many experts say that it’s not a matter of “if,” but a matter of “when” we’ll be hit again.

Boston residents can take many steps to educate themselves about the effects of climate change, rising ocean levels and what the new FEMA flood maps may mean for them. A great place to start is the City of Boston’s Floodplain Maps website.

How concerned is Swett that the city is going to be it with a major storm? He took out a flood insurance policy the last time he bought a home in the South End.