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ASU professors to help Gulf Coast communities assess climate risks

Research project funded by settlement in 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster

December 13, 2019

As the seas rise along the Gulf Coast of the U.S., thousands of communities must decide how to adjust to a new environment. Two professors at Arizona State University are part of a team that’s developing a new tool to help homeowners assess their risk and make informed decisions.

Melanie Gall, research professor and co-director of the Center for Emergency Management and Homeland Security at ASU, and Natasha Mendoza, associate professor in the School of Social Work, are working with researchers from eight other institutionsThe other institutions are the University of Central Florida, Florida Atlantic University, Louisiana Sea Grant, Louisiana State University, the RAND Corp., the University of Florida, the University of New Orleans and the University of South Carolina. Gall will direct the project with Christopher Emrich of the University of Central Florida. to create a new information platform that will tell residents the likelihood that they’ll face a weather disaster and how much it might cost to avoid it. The work is made possible by a $3.4 million grant from the Gulf Research Program, which is funded by settlements from the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil spill in 2010.

“FEMA likes to say that insurance is the first line of defense for residents against flood damage, but we would argue that it’s actually your house that’s your first line of defense,” Gall said.

“We want to provide information to residents to learn more about the resilience of their house. Can you elevate your house? Can you put on hurricane shutters? And how much would that cost?

“We also want to increase the awareness around the hazard profile of your community. Has it had tornadoes in the past? Has it had floods, and where did they occur?”

The researchers envision a Zillow-type app in which residents can look up an address and instantly see all of this information.

Currently, much of the data already exists, and this project will pull it together in a consumer-friendly format. ASU houses a disaster-loss database, which Gall has worked on ever since she was a PhD student at the University of South Carolina several years ago. SHELDUS, or Spatial Hazards Events and Losses Database for the United States, shows events such as thunderstorms, flash floods, weather fatalities and property losses at the county level.

“Over time, we realized there’s a need in the community, especially the planning community and research community, to maintain this database, and a lot of our funding agencies don’t like to maintain things. They like to fund new things,” she said.

So when Gall came to ASU in 2017, she brought SHELDUS with her, and the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions agreed to provide startup money to create the infrastructure to house it. Now the database, which charges for subscriptions, is financially self-sustaining. But because ASU provided funding, all the data for Arizona is free.

Besides SHELDUS, other databases that will be in the new platform include FEMA mapping services, which delineate flood zones, and the Baseline Resilience Indicators for Communities at the University of South Carolina.

“You’ll have an information platform but also a visualization platform,” Gall said. “If you see a dot on the map and you see all the stuff that’s gone on around it, that gives you a much different visual impact than just a list of statistics.”

Crucially, the team also will study whether homeowners actually use the information.

“The whole premise is that more information does not always mean better decision-making. There’s plenty of research that shows this,” Gall said.

“That’s one of the pitfalls we want to avoid. Not just sharing the information, but presenting it in a useful way.”

The researchers will work with community members to avoid negative impacts, such as making sure everyone has access to the information tool.

This kind of information can be sensitive because many people in these communities have already been traumatized by weather disasters like hurricanes.

“There is research that shows that it is stressful for residents to think about how safe or unsafe their residence might be and people might prefer not to think about it,” Gall said. Mendoza, who is director of the Center for Applied Behavioral Health Policy, will be involved in evaluating the stress that this information could cause.

While the initial natural-disaster research will be focused on the Gulf Coast, Gall said the tool could be expanded to include the entire country.

“You could envision something like this with regard to heat in Arizona. What’s the insulation and how heat-resilient is a certain location?” said Gall, who teaches in the ASU Online Emergency Management and Homeland Security program. “In California, there’s plenty of information on wildland interface, vegetation that’s fire resistant and the history of wildfires in certain areas.”

Homeowners should know all the information about a residence before they buy it, including what their costs could be many years down the road, she said.

“There are many homebuyers who find out at the closing table that they are required to buy flood insurance,” Gall said. “That’s what we want to avoid, because the closing table is not the time to decide if you’re going to walk away.”

Top photo of New Orleans submerged after Hurricane Katrina by David Mark of Pixabay