Tallahassee — The Everglades Agricultural Area, one of Florida’s lowest lying wetland areas, is not included on the floodplain maps of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This is only one of several anomalous results stemming from FEMA’s reliance on antiquated and inconsistent flood maps which omit some of Florida’s most vulnerable tracts.
The Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) encompasses 1,181 square miles, the northern border of which is adjacent to the fourth largest lake in the U.S.—Lake Okeechobee. The vast plain of the EAA is used to produce many crops, principally sugar cane. Its location and low elevation make it especially vulnerable to flooding from Lake Okeechobee, a danger accentuated by weakening Army Corps of Engineers levees. Should these levees be compromised, the highly polluted Lake Okeechobee waters would likely inundate the entire area. A recent FEMA press release admitted, “When levees fail, they fail catastrophically. The flooding may be much more intense and damaging than if the levee was not there.”
Incredibly, however, FEMA’s own system for designating flood areas indicates that areas close to levees need not be designated as flood areas. They are, in turn designated as “B” zones, indicating that they are outside of the 100-year flood plain. The flood maps issued by FEMA show most of the EAA (which has a lower elevation than Lake Okeechobee) as being outside of the 100-year flood plain.
The State of Florida flood maps are even worse, showing the entire EAA outside of the flood zone. Even after the Department of Community Affairs revised the Coastal High Hazard Maps this year, the agency continues to leave the EAA out of the mix.
In another instance, the FEMA maps literally change designation when the property changes from one county to the next. Whole areas of eastern Hendry County are designated as flood plains, whereas contiguous land in Palm Beach County is designated as outside of the same flood plain—making it more attractive for development.
The FEMA maps are used by insurance companies and banks to determine whether property needs to be insured against flood risks. Property that is designated as being outside of a flood zone is more attractive for development and hence has a higher market value, due, in large part, to being freed from the burden of expensive flood insurance.
“Florida has a long history of developers selling swampland to unsuspecting tourists but this scam needs no help from our federal and state governments,” said Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips. “Accurate mapping is a basic governmental function that one would think FEMA should have mastered by now.”
Inconsistencies in FEMA mapping arise from outsourcing the function to multiple private engineering firms, yielding varying results that are also open to influence by interests seeking to temporarily enhance property values.