Climate change overtakes U.S. flood maps

Outdated charts understate risk to homes and businesses, FEMA chief says

WASHINGTON -- Flood maps used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency are out of date and understate the risks to homes and businesses from flooding and extreme rain triggered by climate change, FEMA Director Deanne Criswell said.

Those risks are in focus after flooding in Jackson, Miss., overwhelmed the city's main water treatment plant a week ago, leaving more than 150,000 residents of the region without safe water. Criswell said there's no timeline for restoring service to Jackson, the capital city.

"I think the part that's really difficult right now is the fact that our flood maps don't take into account excessive rain that comes in," Criswell said on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday. "And we are seeing these record rainfalls that are happening."

Complicating the matter is that climate-fueled extreme weather can be hard to predict, as well as whether a city or town's infrastructure can hold up, she said.

"We have to start thinking about what the threats are going to be in the future as a result of climate change," Criswell said.

A 2020 evaluation of flood risk by nonprofit group First Street Foundation that analyzed every property in the 48 contiguous U.S. states found that federal maps underestimate by 67% the number of homes and businesses in significant danger.

"FEMA's maps right now are really focused on riverine flooding and coastal flooding and we work with local jurisdictions to update the maps," Criswell said.

The water crisis in Jackson illustrates how America's water systems were built for a climate that no longer exists. The majority-Black city has also been plagued by a combination of underinvestment, crumbling infrastructure and more extreme weather.

Federal, state and local authorities have been passing out bottled drinking water in Jackson and are working on increasing water pressure and getting the treatment plant operational.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said on ABC's "This Week" that he was "optimistic" about progress toward restoring safe water within days.

"Even when the pressure is restored, even when we're not under a boil-water notice. it's not a matter of if these systems will fail, but when the systems will fail," he said. "There are so many points of failure."

"We're seeing not only the age ... and the wear and tear on our system but we're seeing the effects of climate change," Lumumba added. "We have colder winters, hotter summers and more annual precipitation, and all of that is taking a toll on our water infrastructure."


Jackson officials announced Sunday that water pressure has been restored to most of the city's customers.

"All of Jackson should now have pressure and most are now experiencing normal pressure," the city said in a news release.

While gains were made at the O.B. Curtis Water Plant, additional repairs may cause fluctuations in pressure, the news release said. The total plant output of 90 pounds per square inch exceeded the city's goal of 87 PSI.

"Multiple tanks are approaching full," the statement said. "We no longer have any tanks at low levels. All of Jackson should now have pressure and most are now experiencing normal pressure."

The boil notice will continue until the city reports two rounds of clear samples. In the meantime, residents should use bottled water or water boiled for one minute and then cooled for "drinking, making ice, brushing teeth, washing dishes, and food preparation," according to the city's website.

Torrential rains and flooding of the Pearl River exacerbated problems at the treatment plant, leading to a drop in pressure throughout the city, where residents were already under a boil-water order due to poor quality.

As water pressure is restored, some officials fear the increase could break aging pipes.

Officials also expect to fully repair a minor ammonia leak by Sunday.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said on a Sunday morning news show that the city is "a matter of days" away from water fit for consumption. Despite the gains, Lumumba said that Jackson is "still in an emergency."

The city "will be in an emergency even as the water is restored to every home, and even as the boil water notice is lifted, because that is the fragile state of our water treatment facility," Lumumba said in an appearance on ABC's "This Week."

Information for this article was contributed by Victoria Cavaliere of Bloomberg News (TNS) and staff writers of The Associated Press.

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