Sustain and Bounceback: Spreading the Word about Natural Disaster Resiliency to the Florida League of Mayors

Resiliency Rating. Sustainability Score. The Bounceback Factor.

We don’t know what it will be called yet. However, when I explained how such a score might affect a city’s ability to attract new residents and new businesses, the mayors at the Florida League of Mayors roundtable listened intently.

They got it. Resiliency ratings for homes, schools, buildings, cities, and towns are coming. With backing from groups ranging from the federal government to nonprofits like the Rockefeller Foundation, some of America’s best policy and science minds are tackling the question of how to measure community resilience.

Those assembled at the roundtable in Broward County last week included mayors of cities large and small from Ft. Myers and Pensacola, to Palm Beach County’s Greenacres. They understood what we have been saying for years: Disaster preparedness and response are essential, but proficiency after the fact is not enough. Local leaders must get out in front of disasters before they physically and fiscally overwhelm cities and towns. To do so, we have to build and design structures, utilities, and transportation in ways that not only resist disaster, but recover quickly.

For example, it’s not enough for FedEx in Memphis to have its own emergency plans. The company depends on public roadways to keep its trucks moving. And it’s the same for companies around the nation. In Moore, Oklahoma, Mayor Glenn Lewis, who helped see his city through devastating tornadoes, spearheaded adoption of unprecedented 135 mph high-wind building codes to keep residents safe and to reassure businesses who are counting on Moore’s future viability.

The mayors know that their cities are already rated for cleanliness, friendliness, walkability, business incentives, culture, commuting times, school systems, entertainment, and even light pollution. But after Superstorm Sandy leveled parts of New Jersey and New York, residents and businesses across the U.S. and globe are asking for more. They want to know about a city’s ability to withstand flooding, hurricanes, rising sea levels, tornadoes, wildfires, and earthquakes. People and businesses are mobile. They have options when choosing a place to live or do business, and they want the ability to make informed decisions.

To make resiliency scores meaningful, we will have to look deeply into building codes and how we build as the cornerstone of community resilience. We need to ask the right questions. Are minimum codes good enough? Are cities adopting the latest model codes on time? Are they investing in enforcement through adequate staffing and professional training? The Insurance Services Offices (ISO) already rates municipalities through the Building Code Effectiveness Grading Scale (BCEGS). That rating should be the first factor built into resilience ratings.

We are a society of scorekeepers. We evaluate things based on rankings from NCAA football and Facebook “likes” to our own cholesterol levels. People email us and call us every day to ask if their homes will survive the disasters to come, and we don’t have a tidy way to answer the question. But someday soon, we’ll be able to share their community resiliency score. And after meeting with the Florida mayors last week, I am convinced that these local officials will be leading the way.  

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