How data helped a small town defend against floods

  • 65% of cities and towns are not up to modern flood building codes
  • Small towns often can’t predict and prevent where floods will happen
  • Forerunner uses data to help towns better understand flood risk

An aerial photograph shows vehicles and homes in floodwaters in Pajaro, California on Saturday, March 11, 2023. Residents were forced to evacuate in the middle of the night after an atmospheric river surge broke the the Pajaro Levee and sent flood waters flowing into the community. (Photo by JOSH EDELSON / AFP) (Photo by JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)

(NewsNation) — The small coastal town of Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, still bears scars more than a decade after Hurricane Sandy devastated the East Coast, but local leaders say they’re better prepared for the next one, thanks in part to data analytics.

The town’s innovative use of flooding data could prove a model for rebuilding thousands of miles away — where California residents are beginning to recover from the flooding, snow and mudslides of multiple “atmospheric river storms” hitting in less than a week. 

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy turned Point Pleasant Beach’s streets into rushing rivers, tangling its sailboats in the arms of massive trees and inverting the town’s iconic boardwalk until it looked like upturned matchsticks.

Ten years later, Point Pleasant Beach partnered with the data platform Forerunner, which uses federal mapping data cross-referenced with local data to help make buildings safer and decrease flood insurance costs.

Buildings older than a few decades are often not up to modern flood codes — which include elevating a foundation to stay above flood waters, using waterproof materials or even anchors to keep a home in place.

Outdated tracking systems make enforcement difficult. Experts say federal flood maps significantly underestimate risk in most communities, and local governments don’t have the money or manpower to make their own. 

Forerunner focuses on cities with heavy usage of the federal flood insurance program, bringing together local, state and federal data sources to build a better picture of the areas vulnerable to flooding.

Local governments can then adopt new codes based on the data to strengthen their points of weakness.

“We have flood maps, and then we have reality,” said Michael Thulen, Point Pleasant Beach’s construction official and floodplain manager. 

Thulen says the town’s partnership with Forerunner helped residents understand why strict building codes are in place or which homes still are damaged from Sandy.

It also saved residents $432,000 collectively in federal flood insurance rates last year, he said.

“That’s the goal: no threat to life, no major property damage,” Thulen said. “God forbid Sandy 2.0 happens — that this town is resilient enough that the flood comes in Saturday, it starts to drain out on Sunday, we’ll go power-wash our yards, and Monday, everyone’s open for business again.”

Planning for the future

After disaster strikes coastal towns, long-term residents often struggle to afford storm-proofing, while out-of-town buyers may pick a vacation home without anticipating the significant repairs needed. And federal flood insurance can spike drastically. 

Homeowners located in a “Special Flood Hazard Area,” or who have received federal disaster assistance in the past are generally required to add flood insurance to their home policies. Rates are largely based on your home’s “risk rate” as calculated by FEMA.

Still, if cities work to reduce the area’s overall risk, it can knock hundreds off a homeowner’s policy.

“The ability to afford insurance can make the difference in whether or not someone is able to stay (in) their house,” said Susanna Pho, cofounder of Forerunner, who grew up in California.

That’s becoming reality for some on the West Coast, who are picking up the pieces after snowmelt and winter storms flooded rivers, shut down roads, destroyed crops and burst levees.

Only around 2% of homes in California are covered against flooding, according to a report by Fortune.

These winter storms are the latest in a series of climate disasters the West Coast has repeatedly sustained in the past decade.

Small towns are often the ones whose buildings are least prepared due to outdated codes or lack of education about flood risk.

“Oftentimes, we’ll encounter communities that are like, ‘I made this map. It’s really cool for future, long-range planning. But I don’t actually know how to use it to change the way that we’re living in buildings now,’” Pho said. 

Several of its early adopters report Forerunner helps them see lapsed or incorrect permits in flood zones. Others have created websites where residents and real estate agents can check a specific address for risk. 

“As climate change accelerates, as there’s continued development of risk areas, the burden on (local) governments … it’s going to drastically increase,” Pho said, adding that they’re working on features that would allow local officials to go out after a disaster and assess damages in real time.

Forerunner is still relatively new and only used in about 60 communities, most on the East Coast. Yet with 65% of American municipalities not up to modern flood codes, users say big data can help small towns put their limited resources where they will do the most good.


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