Skip to main content
Start of main content

[With Video] How can technology from video games bring flood risks to life?

July 17, 2019

By Jason Schneider and Chuck Lounsberry

FEMA Risk MAP data and 3D mapping help the public visualize flood risk and support more resilient communities

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then consider the value of being able to virtually walk through your neighborhood and see the anticipated effects of a flood event on your property, business, and community. What would a 20% annual chance event look like compared to a 1% annual chance event? Would your home or car be inundated with floodwaters? What’s the expected damage assessment?

Through the power of visualization technology (using a tool frequently used for video game development, known as Unreal Engine) and integration of FEMA Risk MAP data, these questions can now be answered in a more accessible—and personal—way.

Our ongoing work with FEMA Region VII, which serves Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska, created a unique opportunity to develop a first-of-its-kind tool to support our client’s ongoing mission to help the public understand their flood risk.

Stantec’s 3D flood-mapping technology helps both residents and business owners understand the potential influence of flooding events.

Hurdles in communicating risk

A consistent challenge in communicating flood risk has centered on the limitations a two-dimensional map. Flood risk involves so much more than a line on a computer screen or map. With the traditional tools, people can see if they’re within the floodplain or not. But that doesn’t provide clarity on how often a location is expected to flood, or the severity.

Traditional two-dimensional maps don’t always resonate. If, let’s say, someone’s house is in the 1% annual chance floodplain, a traditional map does a good job communicating a risk like, “Your property is going to experience water.” It doesn't, however, provide a sense of what could happen or how much water can be expected. You’re just inside of a line with everybody else.

This becomes an even-greater challenge in communities that are experiencing increased flooding as weather patterns shift. For those communities that historically haven’t had to manage such risks, a line on a map only tells a small portion of the risk story.

Because of these challenges, FEMA Region VII was eager for a solution. They were inspired by a visualization the Weather Channel created to show storm surge during Hurricane Florence. As the Region’s Support Center, we were up for the task.

2D floodplain map of Clive, Iowa. (Source: FEMA)

Gaming a solution

Our Visualization Technology team, which creates animations and 3D photo simulations to better communicate changes in our built environment, become a key partner in this challenge. Working to our benefit was a wealth of public information available through FEMA’s Risk MAP program, including terrain data, aerial imagery, building footprints, and water surface elevation grids. The greater challenge was translating this information in a visual and interactive way.

As with any significant task, we started small with a strategy to visualize a fixed area in a way that could then be scaled by FEMA for broader future use.

Communities have the potential to not only visualize their risk but also make more informed decisions for resiliency solutions.

We started with two neighborhoods in Clive, Iowa, totaling 1.2 square miles, that are known for regular flooding events. The team co-opted a video game design engine into a designer’s tool, coupled with proprietary design and interactive capabilities, to create a digital environment for these neighborhoods.

The result is 3D experience that allows users to view the neighborhoods either as a fly over or ground-level walk-through. Through FEMA’s data, we’ve been able to visualize these communities in a detailed and realistic way, showing streets, homes, and commercial buildings—even changes in terrain. With the base community experience in place, we built various layers to display flooding levels according to FEMA’s water surface elevation grids and expected future flood states.

Users can see how flood waters flow through their communities and how their own property could experience impacts depending on flooding severity. With the ability to plug in an address, users have a highly interactive and personal experience that allows them to see if their property could be inundated and to what extent—vehicle damage, basement flooding, or more.

A visualization of flooding on a residential neighborhood in Clive, Iowa, transforms a flood map line into a more personalized view of possible impacts.

A growing frontier in public engagement

In Iowa, the value of such a tool became immediately apparent in communicating risk and potential mitigation.

We had the benefit of demonstrating the tool with various local groups, from our FEMA Region partners, to city officials, and residents. A video of the flooding levels within the tool was also used by the City of Clive to discuss flooding with a local manufacturing facility as part of their resiliency efforts.

After seeing the tool at work, our client’s reaction spoke volumes for the community-level potential of this technology: “I think the project is so fantastic and will be a turning point in showing risk and changing behavior. It has far-reaching potential that we can’t yet even imagine all the benefits,” said Teri Mayer, FEMA Region VII Risk Analysis Branch Chief.

Doug Ollendike, Community Development Director for the City of Clive echoed these sentiments: “I can see great value in the tool as I move forward in communicating flood risks. Overall, the video was well received, and it was certainly helpful in getting the audience to understand the magnitude of the potential risks.”

With this 3D-floodplain mapping tool, and in our experience visualizing community impacts like changes in traffic patterns or the effects of a new mixed-use development, the personal connection was immediately apparent.

The power of a tool like this is the opportunity it provides entities like FEMA and local government leaders to explain the nuance of a flood event on a very personal level. Through a more interactive, visceral demonstration of flooding events, a flood line on a map transforms. Now it shows someone’s home experiencing feet of water or a local park being swept away because of storm surge.

With the framework in place for this application, the opportunities are endless in scaling the tool to additional communities. By loading FEMA data into the mapping environment for use during public meetings, communities have the potential to not only visualize their risk but also make more informed decisions for resiliency solutions.

  • Jason Schneider

    A senior project manager and professional engineer, Jason is focused on implementing flood risk mitigation and disaster response strategies. He uses tools such as Stantec’s Mitigation Benefits Estimator to help communities become more resilient.

    Contact Jason
  • Chuck Lounsberry

    Some people think Chuck Lounsberry designs video games all day – they aren’t entirely wrong

    Contact Chuck
End of main content
To top