April 19, 2010
Dr. Howard Botts on Storm Surge
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Susan Smith - Managing Editor

by Susan Smith - Managing Editor
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It's a world where GIS is the important metaphor now as opposed to datasets, ZIP+4 being the key in the not too distant past. Geography really becomes the relational link that pulls all these together, so once you have an accurate geocode you can obviously pull in all the hazard datasets, and with the parcel identification number address you can do all the other traditional relational data links. The geography metaphor is extremely powerful to allow you to pull together stuff that wasn't possible in the past.

GISWeekly: Is there any piece of this that you're able to use in a predictive pattern to help in the event of actual hurricane or tsunami? In other words, will you be able to offer data to the government to facilitate prediction of what may be going to happen?

Howard Botts: Absolutely. First of all, when you think about having to pre-deploy resources prior to a storm season to looking at evacuation, you need to look at it in a much larger scale than an individual storm. If you marry up our data with the annual hurricane forecast that comes out, you can get a pretty good idea at least of where your high risk areas are and begin to make the necessary precautions. You don't want to evacuate too many people because then people become insensitive to future storms if they're evacuated unnecessarily. But the reverse is true also. We also in post storm assessment. Having the parcel boundaries is critical because often you only have a slab
and for claims and other kinds of work, you can take air photos and overlay our parcel boundaries on it, and very quickly identify which were the properties that had significant or total losses.

I think understanding where surge risk zones are can certainly help in urban planning and future loss mitigation. One of the things that's clear in the report is that people who are not right on the Atlantic or Gulf often think they are relatively free from surge risk, but in fact they're are all kinds of rivers, creeks, bayous, etc. that the surge can push up into. I think an awareness of the worst case maximum exposure is critical for event planning in looking at risk in a variety of different ways.

For example, barrier islands look like great places to real estate developers. Beautiful ocean front properties, historically they are natural breakwaters, so it doesn't make much sense to build out there.

GISWeekly: Do you employ Building Information Modeling, when you have it, of some of the real estate in part of your assessment?

Howard Botts: In the case of this study, we're just looking at total exposure. In the case of the wildfire risk models we build, where roof type and structural type are important, yes, absolutely. That is the piece we see all the insurance companies starting to look at. In the past they were looking at exposure to events, without understanding the structural characteristics and how that affects that loss potential. Now more roof type and building characteristics are becoming important, companies are becoming increasingly more sophisticated in the way they look at risk.

You have to go down to an individual property level to get that kind of value, so if you're just aggregating on a block group or a ZIP code, you're not going to get that kind of granularity, where building or structural characteristics will give you the explanatory power you're looking for.

GISWeekly: Does this report coincide with a new release of storm surge datasets?

Howard Botts: Yes, we do annual surge updates that come out in April of every year, updated based on new elevation data, and new bathymetry. After Katrina, in particular, there were a lot of barrier island and ocean bottom changes. We look at new barriers, levee help, and other things that may impact onshore characteristics. Property data is continually updated, so those numbers change rapidly. For instance, the exposure level in New Orleans we'll see going up as more rebuilding occurs there. And conversely, being lowered in some areas around New Orleans as the Corps completes their 100-year protection project, supposedly in 2011.

It's the constant battle between increased risk and risk mitigation that we look at.

GISWeekly: Does First American focus on one area of the U.S. or address hazards in all parts of the country?

Howard Botts: We are global in the sense that we have a variety of different hazard datasets and the data collection from the other parts of the company cover every county, every city ,so obviously risk varies. You have coastal risk in the Gulf and Atlantic areas, but wildfire in the western states, hail and tornado risk in Midwestern states, we have earthquake risks for whole U.S. We have a large suite of hazard risk products plus we have a large suite of regulatory compliance like premium tax. Some 20-plus states require insurance companies to determine what municipality or fire district or other kinds of tax zones or regulatory compliance zones a property is in, and then
they remit taxes on the basis of that, some percentage of the premium. Anything that requires geographic precision or property data we have for the U.S.

GISWeekly: Do you use software from a common geospatial vendor or do you develop all tools yourselves?

Howard Botts: We use a combination of things. We have ESRI tools on which we build all our hazard datasets and then when it comes to deploying these we have our own geocoder. As part of our geocoder, we have spatial analytic tools built in it so we can do point and polygon, distance, so we can come up with calculated scores. We are very ESRI-dependent for building it but have very lightweight GIS deployment for calculate and automate.

We can put it behind somebody's firewall so they can have everything, connect our servers through XML or we have a website presence where people can look at one address or a small patch.

GISWeekly: Have you noted any change in terms of storm surge, specifically who your customers are, over the past few years?

Howard Botts: Yes, insurance was our principal vertical market, but as utilities have become very concerned with enterprise risk management, we see utilities increasingly using our datasets. Most recently it's been the home mortgage industry and hedge funds - now they're buying large portfolios and they want to understand what is their risk prior to buying it. Not only do you have the market risk and the volatility and individual property risk but they want to know what is the natural hazard risk that this particularly property has. They're very acutely aware that if some disaster happens, if surge is literally underwater, people are going to walk from their mortgages.

We've shown during this recent crisis that once people realize their homes are financially at risk, they'll just leave them and mail in the keys. You see that in Vegas and other places. As soon as the homes get underwater in terms of mortgage, people abandon properties. If people don't have a lot of home equity in their home, this is something we need to be concerned with. I think you're seeing that with storm surge as well as other risk types.

Companies are starting looking at different risk areas, such as, what's our tsunami risk in Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, California? Even places that haven't been traditionally impacted by tropical storms or hurricanes are now beginning to worry about larger scale events like tsunami.

GISWeekly: Are you considering expanding to have an international presence?

Howard Botts: We've been working on an international strategy. We built our geocoder to handle international datasets, and we have built or will be in process of building wind and water datasets for other areas. We have positioned ourselves to have the ability to offer this internationally.

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