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New FEMA National Risk Index Offers Data Assessment Ability

For large and small jurisdictions, FEMA’s National Risk Index can provide data on 18 different hazards and what an outcome of those hazards may be, allowing for officials and individuals to develop mitigation strategies.

A burned out car.
BERRY CREEK, CA - SEPTEMBER 11: A burned vehicle sits in front of a home on Oro Quincy Hwy. destroyed in the North Complex fire on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020 in Berry Creek, CA. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
FEMA has issued a new National Risk Index that helps state and local jurisdictions prepare for and mitigate natural disasters. The index provides standardized risk data for mitigation planning and an overview of 18 different risk factors.

It’s a free, downloadable database any jurisdiction can use of its flexibility and scalability.

“Unlike traditional natural hazard risk assessments, which address one hazard at a time and target only the most vulnerable areas, the index combines multiple hazards with socioeconomic and built environmental factors to provide a holistic view of community-level risk nationwide,” a FEMA spokesperson wrote in an email.

Hennepin County, Minn., Emergency Management Director Eric Waage recently reviewed the index and said it is helpful for most jurisdictions, especially smaller ones where emergency management is done by someone who has other duties and is the emergency manager as a second duty and doesn't have the staff to do a lot of research.

“Our situation is different than most of the counties in Minnesota,” Waage said. “There are 87 counties in Minnesota and most of them have a single person who’s in charge of emergency management. For them, this kind of information is platinum-plus.”

The index allows anyone to search a county address, and see the hazards associated with that locale and how those hazards are likely to affect the area. That empowers locals to take action to best mitigate those effects.

“For example, if you find out you’re in an area at risk of earthquakes, you can look into investing in structural reinforcement that will save lots of time and money in repairs if an earthquake strikes,” the FEMA spokesperson wrote. “Since risk levels for different disasters are always changing, it’s important to evaluate what the risk is for your area and what factors can increase or decrease that risk. Not only does this tool help individuals, but it helps policymakers and elected officials to prioritize the projects most likely to mitigate disaster costs and suffering.”

The one thing that the index doesn’t do is take a forward look at climate change. “When you account for losses by looking at the numbers, you’re looking backward,” Waage said. “We’re seeing things getting worse as you look forward. We have this giant precipitation increase that’s documented, and we get a lot more water through the year, which saturates the soil and triggers the landslide that we didn’t have prior to this.”

The FEMA spokesperson wrote that the index is a snapshot of the current risk hazards (as of October 2019) and that as the landscape changes, the index will be updated to reflect those changes, but that it incorporates climate data where the current applicable data sets are available.

“Specifically, it includes National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s high tide flooding data from its sea level rise viewer,” the spokesperson wrote. “Methods for incorporating climate change data in the index are outlined in the National Risk Index Technical Document, available on the FEMA website.”