Flood and wildfire risks: Translating risk ratings into future costs can help homebuyers and renters grasp the odds – and act on them

If you look at homes on real estate websites today, you’ll likely see risk ratings for flooding, hurricanes and even wildfires.

In theory, summarizing risk information like this should help homebuyers and renters make more informed housing choices. But surveys show it isn’t working that way, at least not yet. Housing developments and home sales are still expanding in flood- and wildfire-prone areas.

The problem isn’t necessarily that consumers are ignoring the numbers. In our view, as experts in hazards geography, it’s that the way risk information is being presented ignores long-established lessons from behavioral science.

These ratings tend to appear as a single number for each hazard and lack an intuitive interpretation. What does it mean to have a heat risk of 84 (“extreme”) with 52 hot days in 2050, or a flood risk of 10 (“extreme”)?

We believe that current and future hazard and climate risks can more effectively be translated as costs, savings and trade-offs.

Making risk personal

Studies show that people rely on personal experience as the dominant driver when considering risk. In the absence of having personally experienced a flood or wildfire damage, they need actionable and understandable information.

We belong to a group of more than 20 interdisciplinary researchers at universities in Arizona, Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina who are trying to improve risk rating information. We’re currently testing an online tool for the Gulf Coast that provides residents with actionable resilience information. It is an early model of what residential risk reporting could look like.

Rather than just presenting a score, the tool offers information on the costs annually and over time that one can expect from each hazard, such as flooding or wind damage, and how the home’s census block compares with the local area, county and state. To capture the effects of sea-level rise, for example, we model the number of years it will take for a home to go from outside a high flood risk area to being inside.

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