In Harvey's Wake

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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.

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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.

It’s designed to be used by entering an address and clicking on an individual property, the same way someone might look at home prices in a neighborhood on the popular real estate database websites Zillow or Trulia, Brody said.

Now, a month after Hurricane Harvey’s torrential downpour, which brought unprecedented flooding to the city of Houston and other areas throughout southeast Texas, damaging at least 119,000 homes in Harris County alone, Brody says there is renewed urgency for tools that help people assess flood risk as they think about rebuilding their property or moving.

“Over time, if they’re well informed, maybe these people will prefer other homes and neighborhoods that aren’t flood-prone,” he said. “The market itself or the individual will drive that more resilient pattern of development and residential location choice.”

Flood risk scores in Buyers BeWhere depend on whether a property is located in an area the federal government considers at risk of flooding. Homes located in a 100-year floodplain — an area with a 1 percent chance of flooding in any given year — are considered most at risk. In the web tool, they receive a high score of 5 and are marked with a bright red color. Homes in a 500-year floodplain — an area the federal government says has a 0.2 percent chance of flooding in any given year — receive a risk score of 3.

Brody acknowledges that the Buyers BeWhere site is limited. Floodplain boundaries are increasingly seen as less relevant and outdated because of what many argue is a higher frequency of massive rainfall events. Initial estimates found that about 40 percent of buildings damaged by Harvey’s floods were in areas outside of high-risk floodplains.

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That’s why Brody, who is still searching for funding to support the development of Buyers BeWhere, says the site is a work in progress. He wants to incorporate more nuanced flood risk data into the system — the criteria that helped guide him in his own home buying experience. Risk assessment scores could reflect if a neighboring home has made a flood insurance claim in the past 10 years, Brody said. Buyers BeWhere could even include information like the elevation change between a house’s street and the crown of its door, he added.

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.

Ed Wolff, president of the Houston-based company Beth Wolff Realtors, said people should never assume their home is flood-proof.

“Everyone in Houston is potentially at risk,” he said. He also advises all homebuyers to carry flood insurance, regardless of whether they live in a floodplain.

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Homeowners with a federal mortgage loan who live in the 100-year floodplain are required to carry flood insurance, and many private lenders also require it. Those outside floodplain zones face no such stipulations. But Wolff says people have a relatively short memory and even if they do have flood insurance, they often allow it to lapse after several years with no incidents. About 85 percent of homeowners in Harris County had no flood insurance when Harvey hit.

Wolff, who is also on the Houston Association of Realtors governmental affairs advisory group, said since floodplain maps are subject to being redrawn, it’s hard for people to say no to living in them. There are also other factors that might trump the risk of living in one once a map is updated — Wolff said buyers will tell him, “I understand, here’s my risk ... but this is the community I want to live in, the house I want, the schools I want.”

Given the widespread flooding damage caused by Harvey’s record-setting 52 inches of rain, Wolff questions whether a site like Buyers BeWhere will be able to accurately assess future flood risks due to the limitations of historic data.

“It’s Houston, so anything can happen,” Brody conceded, but he said there is data to explain about 80 to 90 percent of people’s flood risks. He just needs to figure out how to incorporate the data into his site, he said. “Harvey brings to light how much homebuyers need this information.”

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Here’s what local leaders could have done to protect the Houston region from Harvey-related flooding — and what they must do to prevent such disasters in the future. [Full story]

  • Last year, The Texas Tribune and ProPublica investigated Houston's vulnerability to hurricanes and torrential rainstorms. The nation's fourth-largest city is sure to see the latter in the coming days. Here's what we know about what could happen. [Full story]

  • In this week's Q&A, we interview Samuel Brody, a professor in the Department of Marine Sciences at the Texas A&M University at Galveston. [Full story]

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