FEMA: What the Acronym Stands for and What They Do for Flood Certifications

Written by Will Caldwell

One key element of the Natural Hazard Disclosure is the flood certification. Flood certifications are actually required by mortgage lenders in California, and for good reason. The Public Policy Institute estimates that one in five Californians is vulnerable to flooding, alongside $580 billion in structures.

In fact, every county in the state has been declared a flood disaster area at some point. Whether the result of overflowing rivers, flash flooding or even urban flooding caused by poor drainage, flooding is a serious issue in California.

Flood certifications for an NHD Report are determined by FEMA — the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Though more commonly associated with disaster cleanup, this agency also plays a key role in evaluating a property’s risk for flooding.

How Does FEMA Determine Flood Certifications?

To develop its flood certifications, FEMA creates what is known as a “flood map” for each watershed area. These areas may sometimes be re-mapped based on factors such as population growth, changing climate conditions or better science.

FEMA doesn’t collect information on its own. It works in tandem with state and local officials, using current and historic data for a wide range of issues. The investigation includes hydrology, infrastructure, hydraulics, land use reports and any previously existing floodplain maps or flood maps.

This initial research determines whether a flood map is needed for an area. If it is determined that a flood map is needed, additional risk assessments will be performed. Information is typically shared with community members during this process, both to inform them of their flood risk and to obtain feedback regarding suggested mitigation efforts. 

Once the flood map is completed, it will establish floodplain standards for the watershed area. This information is used to determine annual flood risk for each part of the watershed. Insurance companies also use this information to set their flood insurance rates. Naturally, the higher your risk for flooding, the higher your insurance rates will be. 

What Types of Flood Certifications Are There?

FEMA flood maps use several different zone categories to designate the risk of a flood, as well as the type of flooding a particular area may be at risk for.

For California residents, the most important certifications to be aware of are V and A zones. Areas in V or A zones are considered a Special Flood Hazard Area in your Natural Hazard Disclosure. These areas have a high probability of flooding, and as such, flood insurance is required for all properties located in these areas. 

A V zone designates coastal areas with a 26 percent chance of flooding over a 30-year mortgage period. These areas are also at higher risk from storm waves. This designation typically only applies to beachfront properties.

Most homeowners in a Special Flood Hazard Area will find themselves in an A zone. As with V zones, these areas have a 26 percent chance of flooding during a standard 30-year mortgage period — or a greater than 1 percent chance each year.

A zones have several sub-designations, such as AE, AH, AO and AR. The different letters indicate the source of the flood risk, be it a nearby pond or restoration of a dam or levee. 

Another designation to be aware of is a D zone. D zones are areas that have not undergone a full mapping study, but where flooding is still believed to be a possibility. Because the actual risk is undetermined, flood insurance may still be necessary with some providers.

B zones indicate areas of moderate flood risk, while C and X indicate minimal flood hazard. While flood insurance isn’t required for these areas, homeowners could still purchase additional coverage if desired.

What a Flood Certification Means for Your NHD Report

The flood certification information that appears on your NHD report shouldn’t be overlooked — it certainly won’t be by your mortgage lender. Understanding whether a property lies in a flood hazard area could give you reason to reconsider whether you wish to buy a property in the first place. 

If you decide to go ahead with your home purchase, there are several important things you can do to reduce your risk for loss. Adding flood insurance to your home insurance policy is an absolute must, and will likely be required by your mortgage lender. Make sure you understand how much your flood insurance policy will cost before you close on the house — depending on your flood certification, this could be a significant amount.

Additional waterproofing measures can further decrease your risk for costly damage. The installation of a sump pump in the basement can remove excess moisture, reducing the risk of flooding in this area. You may also wish to renovate your landscaping to ensure that water flows away from your home. 

Taking these preventative steps could reduce your risk for flood damage. If you inform your home insurance provider of these upgrades, you may also qualify for a reduced rate. 

Ultimately, the flood certification information contained within your Natural Hazard Disclosure should serve as a guide to your potential risk and motivate you to take action. By paying attention to this report and proactively responding to it, you can move forward with your home purchase with confidence.