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Can Flood Monitoring be Crowdsourced?

An app and storm-surge map enable the public to issue and receive information about waterlogged streets, while helping emergency managers better understand flood patterns.

Fairfax County road damage from flooding
Damage caused by the September 2011 heavy rains and flooding in Fairfax County.
(MCT) — Can street flooding be crowdsourced?

Apparently so, as the Norfolk-based environmental group Wetlands Watch hones its Sea Level Rise app to enable the public to issue and receive real-time alerts about waterlogged streets.

When the app launches in a couple of weeks, Wetlands Watch Executive Director Skip Stiles says flood watchers — nicknamed "floodies" — can download it for free and join the effort to pinpoint trouble spots during a rain or storm event.

"Anyone can drop a pin and say, 'Boom, flooded,'" Stiles said.

The information will also be used by emergency managers and scientists to better understand flood patterns and prepare for them, he said.

The app comes as the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) also unveils an interactive storm-surge map to allow users to see the maximum risk for specific locations.

Jeff Stern, state coordinator of VDEM, said in a statement that the map shows only the "worst-case scenario" of a particular storm.

"It's not a real-time map," Stern cautioned, "so people still need to listen carefully for local evacuation instructions during an actual storm."

The map can be found at There, users can click on the "storm surge tool," type in an address and see the projected impact for that location.

Storm surge is the damaging coastal water that's pushed ashore by the strong winds of a hurricane or tropical storm, over and above the tide.

"Historically, 90 percent of the time, it's the inundation of water that kills, not the wind," Stern said.

Each storm is different, however, and the map only reflects the maximum storm surge potential for a Category 1 hurricane, VDEM says. It's meant only to give coastal residents an idea of potential risk.

The map includes the cities of Newport News, Hampton, Poquoson, Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Portsmouth and Suffolk. It also includes the counties of Gloucester, York, Mathews, Surry, Accomack and Northampton.

It was developed using data from the Virginia Hurricane Evacuation Study — a joint effort by VDEM, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and coastal municipalities.
'Start bootstrapping'

Stiles said such storm-surge maps, as well as the Sea Level Rise app, can be useful to raise public awareness of flood risk, as well as help them prepare for it.

The app is the newest version of one that was rolled out a couple of months ago for field testing.

The first version, which Stiles calls 1.0, is being used by a few dozen people to feed real-time flood site data to emergency managers and climate modelers.

The newest version, or 2.0, adds the crowd-sourcing layer for floodies to participate — "We're sort of after the data as much as we are the warnings," Stiles said.

It was field-tested for the media near the Hague inlet of downtown Norfolk on Sept. 10 after a rain event and high tide flooded city streets. Volunteers with smartphones walked the flooded sections and used the app to site the waterlogged areas, which showed up as pins on a map. Stiles said it costs $5,000 a year to put in each tide gauge to get the data that such volunteers can do for free.

According to Wetlands Watch, the upgraded app is meant to appeal to younger, busy people who are less likely to attend community meetings on flooding. It can also give this demographic a way to enter the conversation about adapting to the rising sea levels that climate experts attribute to climate change.

"It's a great effort to try to crowd-source the information — and maybe the solution — to our flooding problem," Stiles said. "You can wait forever for the government to help you, or you can start bootstrapping your own attempts to solve it.

"The more people you've got asking for solutions," he added, "the more likely you are to have solutions."

Climate experts say Hampton Roads is second only to New Orleans among regions of the country most at risk from sea level rise.

The app was created by Concursive Corporation, a software development company in Norfolk. It was funded in part by a $9,000 grant from the philanthropic Blue Moon Fund in Charlottesville. Stiles said Concursive put in at least that much.

Residents can also download a different app, called HEED, or Hurricane Evacuation Encouragement Demonstrator, to determine real-time flooding, local shelters and customized evacuation routes. The HEED app was developed by Old Dominion University using $240,000 in VDEM grants.

©2014 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.). Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.