ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Memories of Hurricane Katrina 11 years ago still haunt New Orleans. Half the city is at or below sea level, but you wouldn't know that by looking at the Federal Emergency Management Agency's new flood maps. The maps go into effect today. And according to them, most of the city is not at high risk of flooding. As Ryan Kailath of member station WWNO reports, some residents worry that the FEMA maps send the wrong message.
RYAN KAILATH, BYLINE: When Andy Horowitz heard that New Orleans' flood maps were changing, he pulled them up online.
ANDY HOROWITZ: I put in my address, some friends' addresses, other places I cared about, and it seemed like everywhere I looked was coming out of the flood plan.
KAILATH: Out of the flood plan - as in no longer officially high risk, not required to have flood insurance.
HOROWITZ: So then I started challenging the system, and I put in places where I knew that there had been 10, 12 feet of water during Katrina. And even many of those places would no longer be subject to the flood-insurance requirement. I thought I had to be using the program wrong.
KAILATH: He wasn't. The new maps are like a bureaucratic magic trick. At the stroke of midnight, the federal government waved its wand, and this morning, more than half of New Orleans woke up in a land safe from storms and flooding, statistically, for insurance purposes.
JARED MUNSTER: That is absolutely a great victory, and it represents to us that the federal government is very comfortable in our level of protection.
KAILATH: Jared Munster works for the city. He's spent seven years lobbying for the new maps and says the changes come from science, not magic. At first, FEMA painted a dire picture for New Orleans. Huge swathes of the metro area were labeled high risk, insurance required. This can devastate a city. High risk means high insurance rates, which make property less affordable and can scare development away.
MUNSTER: At that point, the city and the community rejected those maps. They did not take into account all of the work that was going into our levee system.
KAILATH: After Hurricane Katrina, the federal government built the city a $14-billion flood protection system. In public hearings and private meetings, New Orleans asked FEMA to factor this into the new maps, along with other improvements. Years later, Munster's received those maps are here, but are they accurate?
MUNSTER: We believe so, yes.
KAILATH: Yet you're urging people to keep flood insurance or get it, even if they're not required.
MUNSTER: Absolutely. People need to understand that just because a piece of paper says you're going to be safe, that does not mean that you are going to be safe.
KAILATH: This is the paradox of FEMA's maps. As the last year has shown around the country, floodwaters don't care if you live in a flood zone or not. Now, cities need favorable maps to thrive, but studies show that when people aren't required to buy flood insurance, they don't.
IVAN MADDOX: If Katrina happens again, there's going to be an enormous amount of property that's uninsured in New Orleans, and homeowners are going to be left out in the cold.
KAILATH: Ivan Maddox is an engineer at Intermap, a risk-analysis firm. He makes flood maps for private insurance companies who want much more detail than FEMA provides. And when he crunches the numbers on New Orleans, he says...
MADDOX: To suggest that New Orleans is anything except high to very high flood risk is - it's crazy.
KAILATH: This year, Intermap analyzed thousands of coastal properties and found virtually no difference between FEMA's high and low-risk zones. Two neighborhoods might have different insurance rates but essentially the same risk of actual, physical flooding. Maddox says FEMA's maps are compromised by politics around redevelopment and property values.
MADDOX: The fact that New Orleans insisted on a redo because the rates were too high is a perfect illustration of that.
KAILATH: The same fight plays out every time FEMA maps are updated, Maddox says. The city of central Louisiana, near Baton Rouge, spent years lobbying for better flood maps and got them this summer. Many dropped their insurance, just weeks before historic rains flooded most of the city. For NPR News, I'm Ryan Kailath in a brand-new, low-risk zone of New Orleans.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.