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Is U.S. Flood Risk Far Higher than Previously Believed?

Posted By Shawn Moynihan, Wednesday, April 4, 2018

FEMA News Photo

If a new study led by the University of Bristol is to be believed, 41 million Americans are at risk from flooding rivers, according to phys.org. That’s more than three times than the current estimate of 13 million people.

The Bristol study is based on a new high-resolution model that maps flood risk across the entire continental U.S., whereas the existing regulatory flood maps produced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) cover about 60% of the continental U.S.

The increase in numbers of those at risk is a result of the expanded coverage of the map combined with its ability to estimate flooding on small streams — something that wasn’t adequately captured in previous flood-risk models, according to the study’s researchers.

The 41-million estimate does not include the millions of additional Americans that are at risk of coastal flooding — and the study predicts that more than 60 million Americans may be vulnerable to a 100-year flood by 2050.

While it does make a terrific NU headline to state that U.S. flood risk is far greater than FEMA would suggest, is the situation as really as dire as it sounds? Should the findings of a research team at a U.K. academic institution to be given enough credence to change the way insurers — and the buying public — perceive flood exposure in the U.S.?

PropertyCasualty360.com reached out to Peter Bingenheimer, Senior Vice President of the Consulting and Clients Service Group at AIR Worldwide, a leading provider of catastrophe risk modeling software and consulting services. (Bingenheimer works with AIR’s U.S. insurer, insurance broker, and reinsurance broker clients.) He commented on the findings of the study but not the validity of the study itself, since AIR has not performed a thorough review of the underlying model or methodology.

We asked, what might the Bristol report mean for the way the P&C industry should view flood exposures in the U.S.? Are FEMA’s previous models really that reliable?

Historically, Bingenheimer explained, FEMA maps are the standard by which flood exposure is measured in the U.S.: By and large they’re of very good quality, and an excellent benchmark. FEMA flood maps, he noted, have many strengths: They take into account a great deal of granular local data, but they do have their limitations in terms of “variation in their vintage” (a turn of phrase I now plan on employing whenever possible) and consistency in how they’re developed. Geographically speaking, he added, they do possess some gaps.

“We’re now at an inflection point where science and data and technology can create better models than ever before, more complete, consistent views of risk at scale,” Bingenheimer stated.

That said, he added the Bristol study’s findings are directionally consistent with AIR’s own research, that “there is substantial risk beyond the FEMA flood maps, broadly speaking, consistent with what we observe.”

While the Bristol report won’t necessarily spur more major studies by U.S. modelers in the near future, he said, “it’s indicative of what you can expect to see more of” in years to come.

In other words, just because U.S. cat modelers use FEMA as a benchmark doesn’t mean they believe the level of flood risk is what FEMA says it is. And the Bristol report does much to illustrate how much further research needs to be done on this side of the pond.

The biggest takeaway from all this for insurers? “The findings of this report underscore a major opportunity that’s in front of the industry, because it highlights how much property is uninsured,” Bingenheimer added.

For more information about the Bristol study, check out Environmental Research Letters, where it was first published.

Tags:  FEMA  flooding  insurance  study  trends  U.S. 

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