Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Startup’s Flood-Risk Assessment Prepares for Climate Change

By on November 9, 2018

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Editor’s note: The following originally appeared in the Nov. 8-14, 2018, issue of Caribbean Business.

For Albert Slap, an environmental lawyer turned entrepreneur, the growing detrimental effects of climate change are a reality to be dealt with and not something that can be wished away.

The stakes are particularly high for those who reside and do business along river banks and shorelines, which are becoming targets of more frequent record-breaking floods and tidal surges created by extreme weather events such as torrential rains and super-charged hurricanes. Scientists have warned that human-induced global warming is leading to a gradual increase in sea levels and worsening storm effects.

Meanwhile, global efforts to avoid a further increase in the Earth’s average temperature have been set back by the withdrawal of a major producer of carbon emissions, the United States, from the Paris Agreement on Climate Control.

This new normal has created a market niche for startups dedicated to assessing extreme weather risks for properties as well as providing consultancy in remediation and resilience building to adapt them to the inevitable changes. The pioneering startup in this field is Coastal Risk Consulting, which Slap presides and co-founded with a group of climate scientists in 2016.

The Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based company uses a technologically enhanced mix of data from state and federal agencies—including the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—to provide clients customized reports that measure flood risk for inland as well as coastal homes and businesses. Report analyses determine a property’s exposure to current and future torrential downpours, storms, tidal surges, river flooding, hurricanes, rising sea levels and tsunami risk.

“Climate change is a threat multiplier, it makes things worse, but things have been bad for a long time, in terms of storms and preparedness,” Slap told Caribbean Business during his recent visit to Puerto Rico to promote Coastal Risk Consulting services among prospective clients, which he said include the real estate and insurance industries as well as home and businessowners, and governments.

Coastal Risk Consulting expects to break the $1 million mark in revenues this year with an upsurge in clients following the recent series of record-breaking storms, Slap said, noting that most of these clients are commercial real-estate owners, governments and insurers. In the past year, he said, the startup has provided flood and natural-hazard risk modeling on more than $2 billion in real-estate investments and developments. The company’s database includes properties in the United States and its territories, including Puerto Rico, he said.

In fact, other players, such as Jupiter Intel and Green Stream, have entered the growing market for climate risk assessment and flood tracking.

Many residents and businessowners in Puerto Rico and the United States were caught off guard by unprecedented, devastating floods caused by the series of recent massive storms because of an information gap that Coastal Risk Consulting is closing with its comprehensive technology-driven analyses, Slap said.

“The idea of the company is to try to democratize the information about flood risk and sea-level rise, and have it available to average people,” he said. “When I say democratize, I mean the kind of information we’re talking about, some of the insurance companies know about it. People could see FEMA flood maps, but they are a broken system. FEMA does not take heavy rainfall into account, they don’t take elevation differences into account, and they don’t consider tides and rising sea levels. If you wanted to buy a home and you really wanted to understand its risks, you couldn’t really get this information until we came along.”

Coastal Risk Consulting provides services through its website www. floodscores.com. Prices for reports, which can be ordered from its website, range from $99 for individual homes to $499 for commercial properties, including bulk rates for groups of properties.

Slap said the company’s reports, which use analyzed satellite imagery, are the most complete assessment of flood risks for inland as well as individual coastal properties. Moreover, the reports estimate depth and frequency of flooding for periods up to 30 years and include damage-loss estimation modeling. This is vital information when deciding to buy, sell, insure or make improvements on a given property, he said.

“Most consumers shouldn’t buy a used car without seeing a Carfax report. And yet, most people buy a home and don’t know if it has a flood risk,” he said. “They might know that it is in a FEMA flood zone, but it really doesn’t tell them that much. We show people everything, so they can make reasonable decisions, assuming climate change will continue.”

Coastal Risk Consulting relies on data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore. In fact, the company was the brainchild of the panel’s lead author, Brian Soden, as well as Leonard Barry, former head of the Center for Environmental Studies at Florida Atlantic University.

Slap was an environmental trial lawyer who litigated cases for such high-profile environmentalist groups as the Sierra Club and the Waterkeeper Alliance for 40 years before Soden and Barry recruited him to help build the company.

In fact, Slap said the company goes beyond giving clients the bad news about climate change-induced flooding risks and provides them consulting services to reinforce and rebuild structures on improved land that can withstand future catastrophic events for the next 20 to 25 years.

“Our goal is resilience, not bad news. We are here to help because we have risk managers and engineers who know the latest flood-barrier systems, removable systems, structural changes, elevation changes,” he said. “So, we go that step further, from bad news to a prescription.”

The company, which has 15 employees, has been hired by city governments in the states of Florida and Texas to provide consulting about preparing critical infrastructure for catastrophic flooding events. In Harris County, Texas, the company’s data correctly predicted which evacuation centers were going to flood during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. In Miami Shores in Miami-Dade County, the company recommended the town shut down its septic system because the gradual infusion of seawater into the soil was leading to the failure of its aquifer.

“The former mayor of Miami Beach got this started by raising the roads, raising sea walls, changing the building code,” Slap said. “What he said was that we have to look at the next 25 years, and we will build and make adjustments to keep the fabric of the community and the fabric of the economy going for 25 years, and then we are going to look again.”

The company’s information has helped critical emergency infrastructure, such as hospitals, by preventing flooding that could keep personnel from reaching their jobs.

“Any local government in Puerto Rico can go to our website and put in the address of a police station, fire station, hospital, nursing home, school or evacuation center, and in an hour, they’d have their report,” he said.

He said climate change does not necessarily mean a doomsday scenario for shoreline dwellers.

“Obviously, people want to live near water in Puerto Rico, in Miami and in other places. The concentration of construction, property value, is by the water,” he said. “We don’t want to tell people what to do. I’m saying, here’s your risk, here’s how you can protect your property: you’ll need to go higher, stronger.”

Slap said many of the company’s clients noted that local zoning laws have no resiliency built in and the company’s reports allowed them to make informed decisions based on a scientific basis. “After Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida and Miami in 1992, this region upgraded its building code, but not the Florida panhandle, which saw localities such as Panama City and Mexico Beach wiped out with Hurricane Michael. Hundreds of homes were wiped out, washed off their foundations due to the storm surge” he said. “How many buildings damaged by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico are getting the needed mitigation for the next big storm? I guess it is very few. Why? Because it costs money. So, we provide consulting for cost-effective mitigation alternatives that help residents rebuild right.”

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