Sink or swim - Page 2

For two decades, local climate change experts have been warning what rising sea levels would mean for the Bay Area. So why doesn't San Francisco even have a flood map?

Asked who'll pay for flood damage, Loiacono pointed to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"FEMA is currently mapping San Francisco, but the city would have to join FEMA's flood insurance program to get coverage," Loiacono said.

Surprised that the city doesn't already belong, the Guardian called FEMA's Oakland-based spokesperson, Frank Mansell, who revealed San Francisco is the only city in the Bay Area that isn't part of FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Participating in the FEMA mapping program would allow residents to qualify for federally subsidized flood insurance and get rebuilding grants after a disaster. FEMA's Henry Chau says San Francisco will have to raise its standards "slightly higher" to join the agency's flood insurance program.

Noting that FEMA's San Francisco map is due this summer and includes development that lies in the city's floodplains — development FEMA strongly discourages — Mansell said he doesn't know why San Francisco doesn't belong. But he does know cities that do must build to code and enact ordinances to ensure people aren't living in flood zones. He said cities that do build in flood zones must take preventive steps such as raising buildings.

"If cities don't comply with FEMA's requirements, they're put on notice and could be removed from the flood insurance program," Mansell said, adding that disasters such as Hurricane Katrina illustrate why private brokers won't sell flood insurance.

But as FEMA digitizes and puts its maps online and predicts that 92 percent of US residents will belong to the NFIP by 2010, not everyone is singing its praises. San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission executive director Will Travis faults FEMA's flood maps for not factoring in climate change.

"Instead, FEMA looks to the past to determine floodplains. As a result, their maps are inadequate and show less inundation than is already occurring," Travis told us. The BCDC just released maps that show a two-meter sea level rise in the bay that would put the San Francisco and Oakland airports and the Giants stadium underwater.

"But we won't allow the Giants' ballpark to flood, SFO to be underwater, and San Francisco to become Venice," Travis said. "Instead, sea walls and levees will be built. It'll require more investment in infrastructure and shoreline protections. The point of the maps is to show people what could happen and get them to take action. Sea level rise doesn't belong in the realms of science fiction. It's happening now."

With the California Climate Change Center reporting a seven-inch rise in the bay since 1900 — and the feds refusing to address the role of carbon emissions in climate change — Travis predicted that insurance companies will have the biggest impact in land use planning.

"There's always an effort to shift costs from the private to the public sector, and from there, from the local to the state to the federal government," Travis told us. "But insurance companies are looking at potential huge losses and won't be offering policies at all, or offering them at very high prices."

Mansell defended FEMA's flood maps, arguing that they're used primarily for insurance and so can't be used for forecasting.

"We look at existing data," Mansell said. "Otherwise everyone's premiums would be unpredictable and probably high. FEMA does encourage communities to build to the highest standard, which means the 100-year flood event that has a 1 percent chance of occurring. And FEMA doesn't conduct the studies.