GULFPORT, Ill. — Juli Parks didn't worry when water began creeping up the levee that shields this town of about 750 from the Mississippi River — not even when volunteers began piling on sandbags.
After all, FEMA and local officials had assured townspeople in 1999 that the levee was sturdy enough to withstand a historic flood. In fact, some relieved homeowners dropped their flood insurance, and others applied for permits to build new houses and businesses.
Then on Tuesday, the worst happened: The levee burst and Gulfport was submerged in 10 feet of water. Only 28 property owners were insured against the damage.
"They all told us, 'The levees are good. You can go ahead and build,' " said Parks, who did not buy flood coverage because her bank no longer required it. "We had so much confidence in those levees."
Around the country, thousands of residents who relied on the assurances of the Federal Emergency Management Agency may unknowingly face similar risks.
"People put all their hopes in those levees, and when they do fail, the damage is catastrophic," said Paul Osman, the National Flood Insurance Program coordinator for Illinois.
Now — amid the disastrous flooding across Iowa, Illinois and Missouri — some policymakers are demanding the government come up with more accurate, up-to-date flood-risk assessments, inform the public better of the dangers, and require nearly all homeowners to buy coverage if they live near dams or levees.
Currently, if FEMA agrees that a levee can withstand a 100-year flood — that is, a flood so big that it has only a 1 percent chance of happening in any given year — then the homes and businesses protected by the levee are not considered to be in a floodplain. That means homeowners living there do not have to buy federal flood insurance.
However, some FEMA floodplain maps are 20 years old and seriously outdated. Moreover, some of this year's floods exceeded the 100-year benchmark, including Gulfport's, which was a 500-year deluge, the Army Corps of Engineers said.
For its part, FEMA, which administers the National Flood Insurance Program, has spent almost $1-billion since 2003 to modernize its maps. Also, Mike Buckley, a deputy assistant administrator, said FEMA encourages everyone to buy federal flood insurance and has never claimed levees eliminate the risk of flooding altogether.