Housing & Mortgage
Using Flood Maps to Avoid a Disastrous Home Purchase
Climate change will increase flooding – these tools can help
Even in the age of rising sea levels, you can still buy a house by the water if you study up.
Elevation, my dear reader, elevation. Before you visit a single property, you need to take a deep dive into the world of flood maps. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and other sites have detailed online maps you can use. Many states and towns have maps, also, such as Savannah, Georgia.
Maps will show towns and parts of towns that are likely to get flooded. The two big variables are elevation and proximity to oceans, rivers and flood zones. The FEMA flood insurance risk maps show special hazards and risk premium zones. That’s not just for oceanfront properties but for anywhere in the country. Ignore them at your peril.
Global warming is predicted to lift the level of the oceans between one and eight feet during this century, according to the U.S. government. Even the low end of that range is enough to wreak havoc in communities that already are flood-prone and create scores of new flood-prone areas. Here are some rules to keep in mind if you’re looking for a house near the water or already own one and are worried about global warming.
Water doesn’t flow uphill. Put another way, the higher your property is, the safer it is. That’s true almost everywhere. Of course, low-lying properties can be protected by a levy or seawall. But when the levy was breached in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the higher neighborhoods like the French Quarter got little flooding while lower areas like the Ninth Ward were swamped.
Neighboring cities can have very different risk profiles. Say you want to buy a home on the South Carolina coast. If you use this interactive Risk Zone Map from Surging Seas and click the social vulnerability tab, you’ll see that Myrtle Beach at a 26-feet elevation is a generally safe place to buy a home.
Lower-lying North Myrtle Beach, just 15 miles away, has more flood problems as does the next community, Sunset Beach, just over the North Carolina line. How bad? Here’s a gallery of flood photos at Sunset Beach. Indeed, if you’re inclined to not worry about flooding, just Google “basement flooding” images and imagine waking up to one of those scenes.
See the big picture. Using risk zone maps, you can see flooding propensities for communities along an entire stretch of coastline. Start with Biloxi, Mississippi, which has flooded many times over the years. Click the social vulnerability tab and then zoom out to see the entire Gulf Coast. Towns with big splashes of red, indicating a particularly flood-prone area, have the highest risks.
It’s not just beach towns. Hoboken, New Jersey, on the banks of the Hudson River just across from Manhattan, was flooded severely during Superstorm Sandy in 2012. If you look at a flood map, you can see many sections of the city are low-lying and likely to flood again in the next hurricane, particularly, if the sea level rises.
Consider the worst-case scenario. Galveston, Texas, was destroyed by a hurricane in 1900, killing thousands. These days, the lovely beach town is protected by a massive seawall. But if oceans rise enough, Galveston will be in trouble again. Galveston won’t be alone in an extreme situation. Communities along the East and Gulf coasts, including Manhattan, would be affected.
You may figure you’re not going to occupy the home long enough to have to deal with extreme situations. But what if you hope to leave that oceanfront home to your children? What if you want to sell it in 20 years? Or what if the government stops underwriting flood insurance in flood-prone areas? These are the sorts of questions to ask yourself before you buy a home.