A group of LSU graduate students is reverse-engineering FEMA’s flood protection formula and providing a tool to determine flood premiums for homeowners and buyers.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s method for determining flood risk ratings, known as Risk Rating 2.0, has come under much scrutiny. As south Louisiana feels the brunt of bloated insurance costs, local officials, federal lawmakers and attorneys general are searching for answers about how FEMA determines flood risk levels and is facing an impasse.
Described as a “black box” during court proceedings in New Orleans, officials argued that FEMA determines flood risks for an area — which directly affect flood insurance premiums — without explaining to homeowners how different factors affect individual risks .
Enter researchers Md Adilur Rahim, Rubayet Bin Mostafiz, Jiyoung Lee and Shafil Gandikata. What the officials saw as a black box, these researchers saw as a mathematical equation. They had many of the variables; they just had to decide on X.
Rahim said it’s every researcher’s dream come true: Find a practical problem and get the information out to the public.
“People’s well-being is the goal of every researcher,” he said in a Zoom conversation with the other three researchers. The guiding question, “How do we make people’s lives easier to make decisions?”
Rahim and Mostafiz began researching the FEMA algorithm in July 2021. During the years of working on this project, Rahim and Mostafiz received their doctorates and are now assistant professors. Lee and Gandikata joined the project later. Their research is funded by a grant from Louisiana Sea Grant.
The tool they created will be released to the public as the Flood Safe Home website in late December or early January. By including information such as address, building attributes and insurance information, the website will output the estimated flood insurance premium.
The four team members demonstrated the Daily Comet/Houma Courier website by including details of a home in New Orleans and later the address of the Government Tower in Houma.
The tool brings all this information together so users can see their total spending. It provides drop-down toolbars for adjusting factors, allowing users to see how small variations can affect their bottom line. For home builders, variables such as elevation can be adjusted. Loans can be included to determine the total cost over time. Insurance consumers can include different deductibles to determine this cost over time.
“It just needs the coverage value of the building, what the deductible value is that you want to take, and based on that, it affects the premium value,” Rahim said. “So the consumer can play around with that — changing the coverage and the deductible — to see how the risk premium changes.”
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The website generates a map similar to Google Maps, where three different colored lines spring from the address marker and point to the nearest bodies of water – potential flood risks. In both demonstrations, these were the shoreline, a still body of water such as a lake or lake, and a source of flowing water such as a bay, river, or stream.
The website is inaccurate, Mostafiz explained, because they don’t have access to FEMA’s intellectual property. For this reason, the team collected data from the University of Bristol and the United States Geographical Survey to support the missing data.
Those intellectual property researchers did not have the same data at the center of a legal battle between FEMA and a freedom of information request from the St. Charles Parish.
During court hearings in New Orleans between Louisiana and FEMA regarding a 2.0 risk assessment, North Lafourche Levee Director Duane Bourgeois said FEMA’s levee data was inaccurate. Attorneys for the US Department of Justice said Bourgeois was “factually unfaithful”.
The four researchers were asked if they found inconsistencies in the dike data, to which all four nodded but said they could not correct it. If they did, their website would not generate results similar to FEMA’s.
“There are different types of levees. Some are maintained by the federal government … and there are some other types of dams maintained by local communities,” Mostafiz said. “The thing is, FEMA adopted that 2.0 risk rating, they just took into account the federal levees that were the US Army Corps of Engineers. But historically in Louisiana, there have been many other levees that have been maintained by local communities, and they have really benefited from that. How could FEMA not recognize this?”
He said they discovered this lack of data because the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development also has a list of levees and the levees included in it that are not in the Army Corps of Engineers data.
For now, the team’s website will only apply to the southernmost parishes in Louisiana, but the plan is to fill out the rest of Louisiana and continue to expand from there. So far, it includes Ascension, Assumption, Cameron, Iberia, Jefferson, Lafourche, Livingston, Orleans, Plaquemins, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. James, St. John, St. Martin, St. Mary, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa, Terrebonne and Vermillion parishes.