New website guides potential buyers on environmental risks like wind, floods

ASU professors contribute to massive database of Gulf states properties

A beach is battered by forceful winds.

A three-bedroom house with a dock is for sale in coastal Lafitte, Louisiana, near a marina and a seafood restaurant, for $160,000, according to a popular real estate app.

What the app doesn’t tell you is that the person who buys that house is likely to face costs of about $6,232 a year due to environmental hazards like wind and rain. And financial assistance from the government after the storm is iffy.

That valuable information can be found on a new website called HazardAware, based on research from several institutions, including Arizona State University.

Melanie Gall, clinical professor and co-director of the Center for Emergency Management and Homeland Security at ASU, and Natasha Mendoza, an associate professor in the School of Social Work, are part of a team that developed HazardAware, a new tool to help Gulf states homeowners, as well as renters and buyers, assess a property’s risk and make informed decisions.

HazardAware can provide disaster risk reports for 13.3 million addresses in nearly 200 counties along the Gulf of Mexico — including all of Florida, and parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas.

HazardAware, which took three years to create, was 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.

“Zillow gives you information on how much a house costs and an estimate for homeowner’s insurance and maybe monthly mortgage payments, and you get a sense of the financial burden if you buy that house,” said Gall, who also is an affiliate faculty member in the of School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at ASU.

“But you have no idea the context you’re putting yourself into or the risk you’re taking on. What that amount doesn’t factor in is how much it costs to recover when impacted by a disaster. 

“That’s where our website comes in.”

People can type in an address and HazardAware provides a huge amount of information:

  • Hazard cost summary for one, five and 30 years – the expected amount a homeowner would pay to repair environmental hazard damage.
  • A breakdown of the cost. For example, of the $6,232 that the Lafitte owners could expect to spend a year on disasters, $6,216 of that would be for wind damage, with the rest for storms and hail.
  • Community risk factors. The Lafitte community has poor infrastructure, which includes things such as hospital beds, temporary shelter, evacuation routes and access to broadband.
  • Ways to mitigate risk at a property. The Lafitte homeowner could make sure their insurance covers wind damage and then install impact-resistant glass and reinforce garage doors.
  • Possible future risks, such as more frequent or severe hurricanes or floods.
  • The historic risk in the community.
  • The rejection rate for claims filed to FEMA (55% for the Lafitte area for homeowners, and 60% for renters.)
  • A list of tips for potential homebuyers and renters, such as how to find out how many flood insurance claims have been filed in the community.

All of that data is compiled into a resilience score for the property, from 1, the lowest level of resilience, to 100.

Many factors go into the resilience score, and the results aren’t always expected. A $2 million house for sale right on the beach in Galveston, Texas, has a score of 71 — pretty resilient — because of high community resilience and because it was built in 2017 with a newer building code.

The Lafitte house had a resilience score of 32. One reason is that it was built in 2000, before building codes were upgraded to improve resistance to wind and flood damage.

The team that built HazardAware is from several institutions besides ASU: the University of Central Florida, Florida Atlantic University, the University of Florida, the University of New Orleans, Louisiana State University, the University of South Carolina, the Louisiana Sea Grant organization and the Rand Corp.

Gall said the team is still working on the site.

“Right now, it’s a site for the general public thinking about residential use, but we are also working on building out a portion that focuses more on stakeholders like planners or emergency managers who don’t want information on one building, but are interested in a regional interpretation,” she said.

“They might look at what area of their city has houses with the lowest score or where there’s a combination of low scores and demographic information.”

Other upgrades may include a way for homeowners to indicate that they’ve made mitigation changes to their properties.

“For example, if a house had a massive renovation project and was elevated, we would not know about that from the basic information we have,” she said.

Gall said that the project was like a potluck.

“Everyone brought their expertise and their data, and the challenge for us was thinking about how to combine it and how to communicate it,” she said.

Gall contributed data on disaster loss. She has worked on SHELDUS, or Spatial Hazard Events and Losses Database for the United States, ever since she was a PhD student at the University of South Carolina. She brought SHELDUS, which tracks events such as thunderstorms, flash floods, weather fatalities and property losses at the county level, with her when she came to ASU in 2017. FEMA and the Environmental Protection Agency are among the subscribers of SHELDUS, which was recently updated and is financially self-sustaining.

Mendoza was part of a team that administered an online survey to residents of the Gulf states that determined the best way to present the information so that people would use it. That’s how they decided on a resiliency score. 

Last week, a house on the shore in North Carolina collapsed onto the sand after being pummeled by a storm for several days. The homeowner, who bought the house nine months ago, told the Washington Post: “I didn’t realize how vulnerable it was.” That was despite dire warnings from many federal agencies about rising sea levels.

That’s the attitude that HazardWare is confronting, Gall said.

“You see it all the time – people moving to Flagstaff who have never heard of wildfires,” she said.

“We want to shorten the time of increasing awareness of where you’re living and the hazards you’re facing and what to do about it.”

Gall said she hopes the platform can be expanded to include other areas of the country.

“The approach makes it not difficult to add other hazards like wildfire and heat,” she said.

“Hopefully we will find a mechanism to do that, and we’d like to explore partnering with companies like Zillow or Redfin to be integrated into their apps.”

Top image of Key West, Florida, courtesy of Pixabay

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