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Elevation Certificate Data: Challenges and Opportunities

February 21, 2019
Susanna Pho, CFM

Elevation Certificates

Elevation certificates play a central role in floodplain management. As surveyor-generated permits documenting built conditions, they are used to rate flood insurance, ensure floodplain development compliance, advocate for map changes, and track building changes across the country. ECs pop up frequently in the daily workflow of floodplain managers and planners in large municipalities and coastal communities.  For those communities, they tend to be equal parts a compliance challenge, a crucial advocacy tool, a liability, and a planning asset.

At Forerunner, we've spent a lot of time researching the role that ECs play in floodplain management ecosystems to better understand the challenges and opportunities they present to local governments. As software providers, we're particularly driven by artifacts like ECs — mundane and pervasive documents whose utility is potentially manifold but whose promise is yet to be unlocked. We've also found that are productive conversation topics — nothing gets a floodplain manager talking faster than: "How do you manage your ECs?"

ECs can answer a lot of questions.

In general, our conversations about ECs end up centered on two main themes:

  • We don't have good Elevation Certificate management practices or tools
  • We would like to get more out of the data contained in our Elevation Certificates

This second conversation is one that we're very interested in, since we think that permitting and planning for flooding can and should be linked more closely. Taken together, a community's ECs represent an immensely useful dataset documenting granular, per-property risk. When aggregated, information contained in ECs can be mobilized to make better decisions around mitigation investment and land use planning or to enable more targeted outreach to residents.

But getting them can be hard.

A big challenge for a lot of communities is procuring enough Elevation Certificates to create a meaningful dataset. This can be because there are very few ECs produced in an area or because homeowners don't pass them onto local governments. In this second case, municipalities often want to obtain existing Elevation Certificates to maintain record continuity/completeness. Elevation Certificates can cost anywhere from $400 to over $1,000. This is a big price tag for most homeowners, and maintaining a central database can help minimize redundant surveys.

Beginning in 2017, the State of Florida adopted a statute requiring surveyors to submit all Elevation Certificates to the State's Division of Emergency Management. Their database can be found here and serves as a model for other regional or state jurisdictions. For communities outside of Florida, resident outreach tends to play an important role in collecting ECs. Some of our municipal partners are doing great work on this front. Neil Byrne of Sea Isle City and Ocean City, New Jersey, conducts targeted outreach by mail to each residence where ECs haven't been submitted to keep his records up-to-date. Jennifer McCulloch, of Pequannock, New Jersey, is planning to conduct similar outreach to residents this year. She has found that surveyors are more likely to offer discounts for multiple Elevation Certificates in the same area and recommends that residents commission ECs in groups with neighbors for lower prices. Outreach around ECs also has the added benefit of generating repeated engagement with residents about flood risk more generally. This type of insight builds trust between communities and their residents while also informing them about potential cost-saving measures.

Even when you have them all, coverage can be spotty.

Elevation Certificates are typically procured as a matter of necessity. Homeowners obtain them to lower flood insurance rates, upon the purchase of a property, or when they are substantially improving their homes. Even if a city is in possession of every EC created in their jurisdiction, chances are that only a fraction of the city's built structures are represented. For communities that are applying Elevation Certificate data to answer planning questions, this poses a problem. EC datasets don't usually represent a true cross-section of a community's building stock — a common blind spot is older homes. To address this problem, a few regional, state, and federal entities have been doing some very cool work on this front. To wit, the Hampton Roads Planning Commission is investing in an ongoing project to model first floor elevations using Elevation Certificates and tax assessor data in Virginia. You can check out their Phase I research findings here. Elevation Certificate data can serve as important training data for machine learning applications and as a way to validate the accuracy of other elevation estimate data.

Know how to ask (and answer) your questions.

When combined with other datasets, the elevation data contained in ECs can answer a plethora of planning questions like:

  • How many buildings have been mitigated in a community, and when did this mitigation occur? Did mitigation efforts correspond with any community-wide events, initiatives, or investments?
  • What types of mitigation actions could happen for each property? What would be the most impactful?
  • If a new design standard is put into place for more stringent flood regulation, how many homes will be affected? Who would they be benefitting?
  • In a given flooding scenario, which of the buildings in my community will be flooded at or above the first floor?

These questions can greatly inform both short- and long-range planning, but they require that communities have enough capacity to ask them. We've found that local governments that have robust data-management systems are also quick to identify the EC questions that matter most. At Forerunner, we're working to facilitate easier question-asking (and decision-making) by enabling EC extraction at scale – so that communities low on resources or time can still mobilize their data.

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