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NCAR News Release
2002-15 FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: July 26, 2002

Boulder Researchers Reassess National Flood Damage Estimates


David Hosansky
UCAR Communications
P.O. Box 3000
Boulder, CO 80307-3000
Telephone: (303) 497-8611
Fax: (303) 497-8610
E-mail: hosansky@ucar.edu

Annette Varani, CIRES

BOULDER--In the face of steadily increasing flood damages, a team of researchers in Boulder, Colorado, has re-assessed historical flood data. Their work has resulted in a new national database of historical flood damage.

With the new data set, the researchers at the University of Colorado (CU) and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) hope to stimulate further research and discussion on national flood policy.

Despite management programs intended to control the costs of such hazards, flooding caused approximately $50 billion in damages in the United States during the 1990s. Researchers are split on whether climate changes, increasing population, or failed policies are driving the spiraling costs.

Mary Downton, of NCAR's Environmental and Societal Impacts Group, observes that policy is being made without adequate information. "Unfortunately, available records are inadequate for policy evaluation, scientific analysis, and disaster mitigation.

"No uniform guidelines exist for estimating flood losses," says Downton. "There's no central clearinghouse to collect, evaluate and report flood damage. The data that do exist are rough approximations that have been reported in lots of different ways."

"Most damage estimates focus on national totals, but scientists need data at river basin or community-scale levels to make sense of flood causes and effects," she adds.

The report, "Flood Damage in the United States, 1926-2000, A Reanalysis of National Weather Service Estimates," examines the scope, accuracy, and consistency of National Weather Service damage estimates and offers recommendations on how the data may be better used and understood.

"Decision makers need to understand the roles that climate, population growth and development, and policy play in determining flood damage trends," says Roger Pielke Jr., who directs CU's Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Environmental Sciences (CIRES).

To improve existing data, the team worked with several federal and state agencies to create a national database of historical flood damage that is available on the Internet at www.flooddamagedata.org. Reanalyzed data sets include estimated flood damages in the United States as a whole, damage estimates by state, and by river basin and drainage.

The report details exhaustive measures undertaken to resolve data gaps, errors, and inconsistencies. The researchers assembled published and unpublished data and interviewed staff at field offices to determine methods of reporting. The scientists then developed a series of recommendations designed to improve flood damage estimate collection in the future.

"The National Research Council has stressed the importance of a comprehensive and consistent database," says Downton, "because sound flood policy making depends on having a continuous record of damage estimates. Reliable loss data are critical for cost-effective hazard mitigation and planning for future disaster response."

Besides Pielke and Downton, the report was co-authored by J. Zoe Barnard Miller, of NCAR and CU. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Global Programs sponsored the study. NCAR's primary sponsor is the National Science Foundation.

Data from the report are also available online in the Extreme Weather Sourcebook, which provides a ranking of flood damages by state, with Pennsylvania, California, and Louisiana topping the list for 1955- 1999.

On the Web:



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