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What We Learned About Flood Risk From EfSI's 2019 Symposium

February 21, 2019
Susanna Pho, CFM

Last week the Universities Space Research Association hosted an inaugural symposium to celebrate the establishment of the Earth from Space Institute, a research institute “dedicated to supporting the development of long-term strategies for reducing disaster risk and promoting community resilience, using the unique vantage point of space.” The symposium, entitled “Making Communities More Resilient to Extreme Flooding”, brought together practitioners, scientists, journalists, and policymakers for an interdisciplinary conversation about flood risk. We spoke on the role of technology in flood risk management within the context of rapidly urbanizing areas. The gathering’s official findings will be summarized in a report soon. In the meantime, here are some of our takeaways:

We have a lot of data, but not the right kinds.

Remote sensing data and geographical data approximating risk and measuring vulnerability at the global level is plentiful, especially in the U.S. However, the data experts at the symposium noted that there are still several gaps in data around hazard risk including:

  • Local-level community data. One panelist called this category of information “community descriptors” — this includes data on access to resources, economic resilience, etc… In our panel on rapidly urbanizing communities, the challenge of creating data around local-level lived experiences in areas with changing populations was emphasized.
  • Ground-truth data. Data about on-the ground conditions is difficult to compile. In particular, addresses continue to pose a barrier for disaster funding delivery. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, FEMA found it hard to administer funding to applicants because, in some cases, they could not correlate applicant addresses with satellite or aerial data.
  • Elevation data. First floor height data continues to be a strong measure of risk as well as a difficult dataset to create. This is a problem that we’ve been particularly interested in at Forerunner. Understanding elevation and local-level conditions could help us measure the impacts of disaster much more accurately.

Risk communication is top of mind.

The topics of conversation for the over 14 symposium sessions were wide ranging — from visualization to corporate responsibility. Still, the cross-disciplinary group of panelists continuously circled back to the question of risk communication during the 2-day event. Many of the scientists and technical experts articulated confusion around implementation — applying their research and delivering data was rough for even large and well-funded teams. Some of their challenges included: language barriers, confusion about appropriate communication mediums, complexity of messages, and lack of individualization. Suggestions for moving forward focused on drilling down into ideas of place, local knowledge, and individual perceptions. One panelist emphasized the need to reference history as a way to contextualize ongoing events. Another observed that property owners needed individualized and accurate data about risk communicated in a simple way. Both of these calls for action resonate with the conversations we’ve had with local communities.

We have to start aligning economic incentives or value propositions with resilience measures at all scales.

Multiple panelists across sessions emphasized the importance of articulating the business case for resilience to engage community leaders in real conversations about next steps. When asked how this could be done in conversation with local government, one panel suggested that resilience interventions could be compared in cost with the cost of doing nothing. Questions like: “How much overtime are you paying during hazard events?” and “What is the cost of road repairs?” could begin to illuminate the value of community-level mitigation investments. Risk signals are also being brought into the residential housing market. Researchers at UCF was recently awarded a $3.4m grant to communicate risk to homebuyers in partnership with private industry.

The view from policy is optimistic.

During the panel on flood policy, panelists emphasized that lawmakers are moving in a direction that increasingly values mitigation and long-term resilience. This year saw greater investment at all levels of government in mitigation. The panel agreed that, while we have a long way to go, many of the paths championed by symposium attendees had bipartisan support in government.

In many of the conversations at the Making Communities More Resilient to Extreme Flooding symposium, the possibility of using digital tools to design better interfaces (between science and government and individuals) was raised. We saw this as a call to action and a sign that we were on the right track. In general we’re seeing a shift in industry toward better, more robust, and more thoughtful user experiences as well as toward a more holistic understanding of resilience.

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