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Scientists to calculate flood risk for every home in America

Source(s):  First Street Foundation (FSF)

World-renowned scientists from Columbia University, Fathom, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rhodium Group, Rutgers University, the University of California–Berkeley, and the University of Bristol have partnered with tech nonprofit First Street Foundation to calculate the past, current, and future flood risk of every property in America. Recent historic flooding in the Midwest, along with multiple hurricanes throughout the 2018 season, destroyed thousands of homes classified as low-risk by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This highlights the need for complete, up-to-date, publicly available flood risk data that takes rising sea levels and increasing atmospheric and sea surface temperatures into account.

While institutional real estate investors and insurers have privately purchased this type of costly information for years, First Street Foundation and its partners will be the first to calculate the data based on peer-reviewed science and release it for free. The research will be easily accessible and understandable through the Foundation’s online database and visualization tool, Flood iQ.

“The government has failed to inform the American people about the true risk of flooding be it past, present, or future facing. Large institutional investors are capitalizing on that,” said Matthew Eby, First Street Foundation’s executive director. “We will put this otherwise privileged information into the hands of every American, so they are empowered to protect themselves.”

The flood risk data will be available through an Application Programing Interface (API) for distribution platforms like real estate websites and for academic institutions. The Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center and the University of North Carolina Center on Financial Risk and Environmental Systems have already partnered with the Foundation to use the data for further economic analysis.

“Markets are only efficient when participants have full information. Today, housing markets are not fully reflecting changing flood risk,” said Dr. Carolyn Kousky, executive director of the Wharton Risk Center. “Free, peer-reviewed hazard information is the first step toward closing that gap.”

First Street Foundation’s team of best-in-class scientists will create a probabilistic flood model that accounts for tidal flooding, storm surge, pluvial (rainfall), and fluvial (riverine) flooding. They will then adjust the models to account for anticipated future environmental changes such as sea level rise, increased precipitation, and intensified cyclonic activity. The team will also analyze and compile the flooding history of individual homes over the past 50 years. The result will be a complete and accurate flood risk data set for every home in the United States.

“Presently, FEMA flood maps are the gold standard for understanding flood risk in the United States. But a large percentage of FEMA maps are outdated, with 11% dating back to the 1970s and 80s,” said Steven McAlpine, First Street Foundation’s head of data science. “FEMA maps rely solely on historic observations and do not use changing environmental factors to forecast future risk. On top of that, there are many areas across the country that aren’t mapped at all. “

“Fathom’s peer-reviewed, inland pluvial and fluvial model has already identified 27 million Americans left out of FEMA’s 100-year flood zones,” said Dr. Paul Bates, chairman and co-founder of Fathom. “This is just the tip of the iceberg. By advancing our inland model and coupling it with other coastal models, the First Street project will create the country’s first ever comprehensive, publicly available flood risk data set.”

A team of 57 people—including 25 Ph.D.s—will use the latest modeling techniques, validated by the peer-review process, and the most advanced computing technology to calculate risk at an individual property level, creating maps of the highest resolution and making them available to the general population.

“Flooding is the costliest natural disaster in the United States,” said Trevor Houser, a partner at Rhodium Group which, along with collaborators at Rutgers University and the UC Berkeley, will be leading coastal storm surge modeling for First Street Foundation. “This group of cutting-edge scientists, economists, flood modelers, and data engineers are coming together to meet a critical need, one that the government has been unable to effectively address.”

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  • Publication date 13 Jun 2019

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