Nonprofit Opening Flood Risk Model to Researchers and Public

January 14, 2020

A nonprofit flood risk research organization is offering the first publicly available flood risk model that predicts the probability of flooding for homes and properties across the United States.

Brooklyn, N.Y.-based First Street Foundation has launched Flood Lab, a research partnership through which it will make the model with data on previous instances of flooding as well as future risks available to eight universities for free, giving them and the public a look at the data institutional investors use to gauge risk.

In exchange for access to the model, the universities have promised to conduct research into flooding’s impact on the U.S. housing market, its implications for lower income and minority communities, and its cost to federal, state, and local taxpayers among other issues.

The collaboration includes experts from Johns Hopkins University; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the University of California, Davis; the University of Georgia; the University of Texas, Austin; the University of Washington; Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam; and the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center.

One of First Street’s objectives is to see properly-calculated flood risk applied to “all insurance rates, mortgages, land use decisions, bond ratings and other financial instruments.” It has been working with universities and the flood modeling firm Fathom to provide flood risk information to individual property owners with information on their own flood risk. Last June it went live with its database at Flood IQ.

Scientists Vow to Report Flood Risk for Every U.S. Property for Free

While insurers, banks, investment and other firms have access to flood models and data from for-profit firms, researchers have limited, if any, access to this kind of data, according to Matthew Eby, executive director of First Street Foundation.

Risk Management Solutions, CoreLogic, AIR Worldwide are among the biggest sellers of flood risk information, a private situation that First Street hopes to challenge.

“By giving this data to the world’s top experts for analysis and sharing it with the public, First Street Foundation will disrupt a dangerous asymmetry of information in the United States, one that allows institutional investors and the wealthy to capitalize on the changing climate while disempowering the vast majority of Americans to protect themselves and plan for their future,” said Eby.

As more data is generated, it will be given to researchers on a rolling basis through an application programming interface (API). The information will eventually be shared directly with the public through the foundation’s online visualization tool.

According to the announcement, researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania will examine the impacts of flood risk on housing and insurance markets. The Wharton team will also look at the fiscal impacts of major flood events on municipalities.

“Flood costs continue to escalate in the U.S. and our work in partnership with the Flood Lab will help inform policy responses to this growing risk,” said Carolyn Kousky, Flood Lab partner and executive director of the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center.

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University will use the Flood Lab to expand their research on how big banks’ may be shifting climate risk to taxpayers. They’ll also look at the potentially outsized influence real estate developers may have on Congress when determining the location and scope of seawalls, levees, and other adaptation projects built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“The insights we generate based on their spatial big data will allow us to inform public policy that protects all people from the emerging climate change crisis,” said Matthew Kahn, director of Johns Hopkins University’s 21st Century Cities Initiative.

Other planned Flood Lab research projects include:

  • Researchers at the University of California, Davis are using Flood Lab to examine the relationship between flood risk exposure and socioeconomic and demographic characteristics; to identify areas where managed retreat should be used as a flood risk mitigation tool; and to assess the viability of community-level flood insurance.
  • At the University of Georgia, researchers will study the impact that First Street’s detailed flood risk information has on home prices, flood insurance take-up, and risk mitigation efforts in communities across the nation. They will also look at four southeastern states to examine how communities use different types of flood risk information and how those sources influence the flood risk perceptions of various stakeholders.
  • At the University of Texas at Austin, researchers are using data from the Flood Lab data to examine housing market responses to flood risk, and the distributional effects of major floods in coastal housing markets.
  • Researchers at the University of Washington will analyze the extent to which FEMA maps under- or over-estimate flood risk in the Seattle Metropolitan region and to assess how much of the built environment in the U.S. is exposed to flood risk. They will also evaluate whether the First Street Foundation Flood Model is a better predictor of flood risk exposure than FEMA’s existing flood maps.

First Street Foundation’s previous research, analyzing the impact of sea level rise on coastal housing markets, found a nearly $15.9 billion loss in relative home values along 18 East and Gulf Coast states from Maine to Mississippi between 2005 and 2017.

The public can access the Foundation’s tidal flooding and home value data through FloodiQ.com, an online visualization tool. Others may apply for access to the Foundation’s current and forthcoming data at FirstStreet.org/API.

Photo: Main Street in downtown Grafton, Ill., is swamped with Mississippi River flood water during historic flooding in Grafton on Wednesday, June 5, 2019. (David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)

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