Can a web tool help coastal Texans assess their flood risk?

The Texas Tribune, September 27, 2017                                                           

When Sam Brody and his wife were shopping for a new home in Houston six months ago, they had very different priorities. Brody, a researcher who analyzes ways to minimize the impact of natural disasters, was focused on the fact that not all of Houston’s sprawling metropolitan area is created equal, especially when it comes to flood risks.

“My wife was looking at the number of bedrooms, and I was looking at the proximity of bayous,” said Brody, a Texas A&M University at Galveston professor who specializes in coastal environmental planning.

Sam and Korin Brody eventually settled on a place, but not before he carefully scrutinized several flood-risk criteria, including the house’s elevation, surrounding street drainage infrastructure, and how close it was to federally identified floodplains — zones susceptible to rising waters during storms. He also checked to see if newly renovated homes that caught his wife’s eye had been renovated because they had flooded in the past.

“It’s my business to know that, but other people don’t have that data,” said Brody. Or, rather, they don't have the ability to easily access and understand the information, which is all publicly available, he said.

So Brody, along with a team of students and a colleague at the University of Washington, set out to create a web tool that would make accessing that data easier. Called Buyers BeWhere and launched in July, the site provides a risk assessment score on natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods for homes in Harris and Galveston counties. It also includes risk assessments derived from federal data for hazards like pollution and provides users with a composite risk score. . .

. . . But people understandably prioritize different things when they are thinking about buying a home, which often don’t include flood risks, said Berenice Yu, who oversees an education and counseling center for first-time homebuyers at the Houston-based nonprofit Avenue Community Development Corp.
“Ultimately, it’s their choice,” she said on whether prospective buyers take flood risk into account.
Her organization used to advise all prospective buyers not to purchase property in a 100-year floodplain, where they would be required to carry flood insurance. Yu noted that people rarely asked questions about flooding in homebuyer basic education classes offered at Avenue CDC, but they frequently inquired about school and crime statistics.
After Harvey hit, Yu and her team now recommend everyone buy flood insurance. It was somewhat surprising to her, however, that in the only homebuyers’ class Avenue CDC has held since Harvey made landfall at the end of August, attendees were not asking more questions about flood dangers.
“The general sense was, ‘That’s not going to happen to us,’ and they really didn’t want to know that much more,” she said.
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