Vantage Point: Unfinished Business

It is the start of December as I write this, when I had expected to provide updates on the reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) and a new Elevation Certificate, the current forms of both having expired on November 30. Instead, the NFIP was extended one week and awaits re-reauthorization, and the Elevation Certificate is facing an indeterminate extension, with recommended updates to it on indefinite hold. In the background, a partial government shutdown looms as a possibility. Rather than tread water (pun intended) with conjectures, let’s see what we actually do have.

Even before these two lapses, another halt to progress came in the form of expired terms for more than half of the Technical Mapping Advisory Council to FEMA (TMAC) on October 1. The reason for this is not FEMA, but due to backlog in the White House office that vets all candidates for positions on advisory committees and councils to various federal agencies. Some TMAC candidates to replace members with completed terms have been waiting since 2017 for authorization to participate as full members, thereby disenfranchising some stakeholders for a year. Because terms for TMAC members expire for half the Council in alternating years (to assure some continuity), half expired this October 1—including mine on behalf of the National Society of Professional Surveyors. My replacement, whose paperwork was completed in time for the spring 2018 deadline, is among many others waiting to step up to take their places at the table.

As a result, TMAC has not had a quorum since September 30 and therefore is unable to meet or to complete its 2018 Annual Report and recommendations. The loss of momentum will be difficult to overcome, and meanwhile FEMA waits for the advice it requested relating to flood insurance coverage, to uncertainty and precision in flood models and studies, and to prioritizing unmapped areas. Extension of expired terms to allow completion of this work while awaiting approval of new members can’t happen without Congressional action.

The Elevation Certificate was on track for update before its November 2018 expiration with a working committee that began meeting in November 2017. Stakeholders from the flood insurance, floodplain management, and design professions met by phone to make the form better fulfill needs of its various users by addressing discrepancies between form and instructions, technical glitches in completing FEMA’s fillable PDF, clarification of floodplain management objectives in the instructions, and more. But in late October 2018 we were all thanked for our input and informed that the workgroup had been halted with “a possibility” of resuming “sometime in late 2019.” No further explanation has emerged.

The usual process for handling impending expirations is that the agency responsible for the form publishes a request for comments in the Federal Register. FEMA did this on March 3, 2018, asking that comments be submitted by May 8. Having received only one response by that time, and that one being an approval of the current form with no further suggestions, FEMA published another notice on June 29, extending the deadline for the comment period to July 30. What happened between then and the October suspension of the workgroup is somewhere in the Black Hole.

The outcome is that the expired Elevation Certificate is the one and only document available. What should have happened immediately was a formal notice from FEMA to ignore the date at the upper right corner of the form until some specified date, when presumably a replacement would be available. Currently we are awaiting an official bulletin from FEMA to effectuate this extension. We have been through this maze before, with the immediately prior form having required several extensions and then use after the expiration of the last published extension. For now, we should keep using the present form, being prepared to explain to clients that the November 30, 2018 expiration date is to be ignored due to lack of a new document.

Finally, some may ask why reauthorization of the NFIP is important, with the expansion of flood insurance availability through private companies. Aside from the consistency that the NFIP offers consumers (for comparison, think about how difficult it is to decide between health care insurance plans—what’s covered and what’s not, for what fee), there are other aspects of the Program that touch the rest of our lives.

Hazard Mitigation Grants help communities prepare ahead of disasters to reduce risk. Technical guidance helps us design and construct in safer ways, whether by structure location, materials used, foundation type, elevation, or protection of service facilities. And among the feet on the ground after a disaster are FEMA’s, helping process loans, grants, and claims to guide individuals and communities onto the road to recovery. Sure, the NFIP does need improvements. But sudden eradication is not in the best interests of our nation.

About the Author

Wendy Lathrop, PS, CFM, CFS

Wendy Lathrop is licensed as a Professional Land Surveyor in NJ, PA, DE, and MD, and has been involved since 1974 in surveying projects ranging from construction to boundary to environmental land use disputes. She is a Professional Planner in NJ, and a Certified Floodplain Manager through ASFPM.