Sep. 11, 2013 at 7:33 AM ET
When Nancy and Mike Heath wanted to refinance their home, they were stunned to learn they would have to pay for flood insurance to get the new mortgage. Their house sits up on a hill with no real risk of flooding. "All of a sudden, we were slapped with this huge flood insurance payment that we didn't expect," Nancy said.
The Heaths' bank said that, based on official maps made by the government agency FEMA, they live in a flood zone. But a TODAY investigation found that some of those maps, which are used around the country, are way out of date and riddled with errors.
The Heaths' map, for instance, was from 1981 — more than 30 years old. According to it, there was a brook running right through the center of their house.
"It's ludicrous. There is no brook," Nancy said.
The flood insurance would cost the Heaths $25,000 over the course of their mortgage. Payments, the couple said, they couldn't afford.
And the Heaths are not alone. Tens of thousands of people nationwide have been put in flood zones by mistake — government errors that can force homeowners to pay thousands of dollars for insurance they don't need.
"This is hard-earned money, you know," Nancy Heath said. "I just felt the maps that they were using were so wrong, I shouldn't have to pay out."
And now members of Congress are going head to head with FEMA over its mapping program.
New York Sen. Chuck Schumer says FEMA put hundreds of Long Island homeowners in a high-risk flood zone, using inaccurate data from an entirely different county, to save money. "People who knew they'd never be flooded were going to be charged $10,000, $15,000," he said. "These are middle-class, hard-working people. They'd not get a mortgage, lose their homes."
Schumer had to threaten legislation, and only then did FEMA change the flood maps. The agency declined a TODAY request for an interview, saying in a statement that it works with communities to develop the maps, that people can appeal them, and that only about 0.3 percent of homes in flood zones do each year.
"They've got to revamp the whole program; it's one big mess," Schumer said. "What we're trying to say to FEMA is: Stop. Stop and come up with a better way to do this, not using wrong maps to include people in flood insurance who are never going to have a flood."
Experts say there is also another problem with the system: Since 2011, the flood map budget has been cut in half. So until Washington finds a solution, some homeowners may be left drowning in unnecessary insurance payments.
The Heaths fought back against FEMA and won, getting their house taken out of the flood zone. So what can you do if your bank says you have to pay flood insurance?
You can file an appeal with FEMA if you think there's been a mistake. You will probably need to get additional data to prove your home is a low risk for flooding; check with your local zoning or buildings department to see if they can help you find it. If not, you can hire a local surveyor to come out to your property to prepare an elevation certificate. It will cost you several hundred dollars, but it could save you money in the long run.
You can get information on how to appeal your FEMA flood zone designation here.
You can check your flood map here.
Full statement from FEMA:
"FEMA administers the National Flood Insurance Program at the direction of Congress. In developing flood maps, FEMA works closely with communities at all steps of the process. When new preliminary maps are released, communities have the opportunity to review and appeal them before they ultimately adopt the maps. FEMA will always accept data from individuals and communities, as long as it meets established technical requirements. Annual requests for Letter of Map Amendments represent about 0.3% of all housing units in Special Flood Hazard Areas."