When Hurricane Rita was about to make landfall in Houston in 2005, Dr. Devika Subramanian — a computer science professor at Rice University — was as clueless as her panicking neighbors on what to do. She didn’t get much help from the Bellaire city office.
“The receptionist essentially said, ‘I’m leaving. I’m getting out of dodge, this is the worst thing!’ I thought, gee, I know nothing about hurricanes.”
Since evacuation orders are based solely on storm surge, they’re not much help for residents who aren’t on the coast. Subramanian wanted to give Houstonians information about other storm risks. Information that is specific to each home.
“There are three colors, green, which is very low risk, yellow, which is medium risk, and red, would be high risk. So I am on that boundary between medium and high medium risk?”
Subramanian is part of a team at Rice that has created Mystormrisk.com. When you type in your address, you can view your risk for wind damage, flooding, storm surge, and power outages. The Rice team drew on extensive data that the Appraisal District has for every home in Harris County-from the height, to the wiring, to the age of the house:
“And then we know, for example, how the roof shingles were nailed to the roof. Is it 6D, or 6S, or 8S or 8D? And they all have different properties. That’s why we believe when we tell you that you’re in an average risk or a medium risk or high risk, we’re fairly confident that our information is correct.”
For flooding risk, they focused on bayous; for power outages, a history of how quickly Centerpoint has restored power in that area. But as of right now, you can’t view this information for your exact home—only an average for your neighborhood. Subramanian says there’s a delicate issue at stake:
“Privacy. This is a big issue. Because, a lot of people who own expensive homes get very nervous about these risks being put out. The first question I get asked is, are you going to share this with the insurance industry?”
Subramanian says they intend to design a system to let homeowners view their information, without releasing it to the public. But there’s another challenge: how do you keep people from panicking when they see red, or making them too complacent when they see green? Terry Moore, the deputy coordinator for Houston’s Office of Emergency Management, says the city plans to promote the website once it can clearly explain risks to residents.
“If they use the site, and don’t get the right message, then we’ve missed the boat, and we’re making the problem worse, not better. Information is one thing, but properly packaging the message so that it’s clear, concise and understandable is equally important.”
Because the team still needs to make changes, they don’t intend to fully roll it out this year. But in the future, Subramanian hopes it can help people make more sensible decisions; instead of hitting the road to Austin, they might just go across town.