The 18 people staffing the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Map Assistance Center in Tallahassee were the first line of defense to answer people's questions about their risks of flooding and need for insurance.
To handle the complicated, technical aspects of flood hazard maps, FEMA had a policy that these "Tier 1" call center employees were to have majored in relevant fields such as geology or environmental sciences, according to a draft of a confidential assessment of the program obtained by The Washington Post.
But none of them had such a background, the February 2005 assessment found.
Instead, the assessment said, the job was left primarily to college students, many from Florida State University, studying fields such as fashion merchandising and music education. Their previous jobs included work as lifeguards, and as cashiers for Winn Dixie stores and at McDonald's, Tropical Smoothie and Mr. Taco.
As FEMA faces criticism for its performance after Hurricane Katrina, the assessment points to what it says were deficiencies in the agency's ability to provide information to homeowners before disasters, as they tried to protect their properties in the event of flooding.
It found that the staff in the call center, restructured last year and run by FEMA contractor Michael Baker Corp., may have provided some misinformation.
Of the 129,000 calls and e-mails to the center last year, 25 percent to 30 percent of the responses may have included "significant errors," and "such problems in many cases could lead to significant financial loss to the customer, including but not limited to wrongful denial of insurance coverage at the time of the loss," according to the assessment. The assessment was prepared by consultant Nexus Integration Services at FEMA's request.
FEMA denies that that could have happened. No information given out by the call center employees "could result in 'wrongful denial of flood insurance,' " Michael Buckley, acting deputy director of FEMA's mitigation division, said in an e-mail.
The draft assessment "was never finalized because of concerns that its findings were not substantiated," Buckley wrote. He did not provide specifics about those concerns.
Michael Baker Corp. referred all questions to FEMA.
John Magnotti, the call center manager, acknowledged in an e-mail that during the first few months of the center's operation last fall some staff members "did have performance issues, resulting in some misinformation being provided to callers." But since the assessment, Tier 1 employees were combined with more knowledgeable Tier 2 staff, "making subject matter expertise more readily available," Buckley wrote. Management also now monitors 15 calls per employee per month to try to avoid mistakes, he said.
The call center "is now operating extremely well," Magnotti wrote.
Robert James, who prepared the draft assessment, defended its findings. It was never finalized, he said, because "Baker basically wanted me to rip the guts out of the document."
"The problems within FEMA are very broad, and they are systemic," James said in a phone interview. "People weren't reviewing things, people weren't asking questions on how work was being accomplished, people weren't being held accountable."
Even if information provided to the public was correct, the flood hazard maps may not accurately portray the risks of water-linked natural disasters. Nearly 70 percent of the nation's 92,200 flood maps are more than 10 years old -- many are much older -- and describe a landscape that ignores years of new buildings, parking lots and erosion that change the dynamics of water over land.
FEMA is in the middle of a five-year, $1 billion initiative to modernize and digitize flood maps, but at congressional hearings in July, experts expressed concern with the progress. Cheryl Small, president of the National Flood Determination Association, said that the maps are riddled with obsolete information and too many are being digitized without new data.
"If you have a map that is not accurate today with the flood plain, that map is not going to be any more accurate when it's digital," she said.
Without accurate maps, residents could be absolved from the requirement to have flood insurance when in fact they are facing a flood risk. In 2005, FEMA statistics show that 20 percent to 25 percent of the flood insurance claims come from outside the areas designated as high flood risks, areas where flood insurance is optional. When Houston was hit by Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, about two-thirds of the area flooded was outside such high-risk zones, Buckley wrote.
"I have people in the flood zone that are on top of a hill, and people down at the bottom of a hill are out of a flood zone," said Harold Holmes, former president of the Mississippi chapter of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, who runs the Pearl River County planning department. "There's going to have to be a reexamination for this whole entire process. . . . There are people I'm sure inland that were never in the 100-year flood plain whose houses got washed away, and they never even thought they needed flood insurance."
In the Washington region, the flood insurance industry has been under attack for two years because many people were dissatisfied with FEMA's response to Hurricane Isabel. In June, a federal lawsuit was filed accusing top FEMA and Department of Homeland Security officials, as well as private insurance companies, of knowingly paying out far less than policy holders deserved to repair flooded homes and property. Much of the information on alleged wrongdoing was found in an investigation by Steve Kanstoroom, who runs the Web site www.femainfo.us.
Kanstoroom received the assessment of the call center and said he wanted to give it to the members of Congress, including Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who have requested it and other documents. But Kanstoroom said he was told by the inspector general's office at the Department of Homeland Security that he should not have official documents relating to FEMA. As of mid-month, the documents had not been given to legislators.
Kanstoroom said the call center troubles shown in the assessment are "indicative of the types of problems that I've found," adding, "In my opinion this is just the tip of the iceberg."