This is the second installment from our new commentary, “Learning from the 2017 Disasters to Create a Reliably Resilient U.S.” In this discussion, we explore cases where the barriers to rebuilding resiliently overcome the best post-disaster intentions.
By now, it is well established that 2017 was a year for the disaster record-books. The 2017 hurricane season delivered 17 named storms, with 10 forming hurricanes.[i] For the first time in recorded history, three category 4 hurricanes hit the U.S.[ii] Harvey set a new tropical rainfall record with over 60 inches in Texas.[iii] Irma maintained a record-breaking category 5 strength for 37 hours.[iv] The 2017 California wildfires were the deadliest wildfire disaster in state history.[v] Even Ireland had a hurricane.
The 2017 Tubbs, Atlas, and Thomas fires in central and southern California each exceeded $1 billion in losses.[vi] Insurance claims from 2017 California wildfires have reached $11.8 billion, the most expensive series of wildfires in California history.[vii] Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria caused approximately $265 billion in damage, with each hurricane joining Katrina and Sandy as the new top five costliest U.S. hurricanes on record. [viii]
This is just a portion of the destruction. According to NOAA, the 2017 total loss picture for all weather and climate disasters exceeded $300 billion, making it the costliest disaster year in modern history.
So, what are our opportunities to address the rising costs of disasters?
First, it is important to understand America’s natural disaster policy history and the repeating pattern we have observed. This pattern is a reoccurring cycle with little divergence. Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires happen causing catastrophic loss of life and property. Temporarily, the events rivet the public’s attention, and (sometimes) motivate post-event solutions like better building codes, improved floodplain regulations, retrofitting programs, strengthened infrastructure, and a more prepared and aware populace in the disaster-affected communities.
All too soon, the disasters fall out of the nation’s view and become a strictly local matter. After all, disasters are local events. The affected local community next moves through recovery for years, sometimes even a decade. But somewhere along the line, the original passion to rebuild better or leverage new building science solutions can fall away either due to more concern for short-term costs or in response to opposition from those that eschew strong and strict development and building safety rules. Perhaps even worse, sometimes the original solutions that incorporate better practices may be implemented only to be diluted or reversed over time.
Alabama Adopts a Statewide Code Without Enforcement
One example of how initial commitments can wane is in Alabama where the infamous 2011 Tuscaloosa tornado outbreak caused 65 deaths and 1,500 injuries, according to NOAA. It cost an estimated $100 million to remove the debris from Tuscaloosa alone.[ix] And this was one tornado of the tornado outbreak between April 25 and 28th, responsible for nearly 350 deaths. According to academic, post-tornado engineering reports, lives would likely have been saved if Alabama had a residential building code in place before the tornadoes occurred. This insight supported a policy debate that led to enactment of the first statewide Alabama building code. Unfortunately, the Alabama statewide code is only voluntary, ergo not enforceable. At its best, it is weak as a tool to drive resilience.
It is important to note that some coastal Alabama leaders have adopted and do enforce model building codes as well as beyond-code programs like the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) FORTIFIED initiative. However, the balance of the state is still without the certainty of minimum life-safety protections afforded by a well-enforced statewide building code.
Jacksonville, Alabama was struck by deadly EF3 tornadoes in March of 2018. Forensic engineering examinations are underway now, but we believe they will reinforce the same message as in the past: that well-enforced codes would have made a material improvement in building performance. Of course, wood-frame homes built to the most recent code cannot resist an EF4 or EF5 tornado, but most tornadoes, even during larger events, are EF3 and below. Therefore, if homes are built to a modern code, and have safe rooms built to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) 320 or storm shelters tested and approved to meet the International Code Council/National Storm Shelter Association 500 standard, we could save lives and homes.
This idea is the premise of the “Dual-Objective-Based Tornado Design Philosophy” first proposed by Dr. John van de Lindt, Dr. David Prevatt, and others following forensic engineering investigations of deadly tornado outbreaks.
Louisiana Downgrades Flood Protection in the Bayou State
Another example is Louisiana. In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, the legislature enacted their first statewide residential building code, yet last year the legislatively-created building commission adopted the latest model code version without the minimum one-foot flood elevation (freeboard) requirement. The building commission did so despite recent experience with the 2016 East Baton Rouge flooding—an event that presented a billion-dollar case for preserving the minimum requirement
Prior to adopting the downgraded minimum code, a review of Louisiana’s 350 at-risk flood communities revealed that less than ten percent (33 jurisdictions) required the beneficial minimum one-foot or greater freeboard requirement. Adoption of the new 2015 version of the International Residential Code intact, without weakening the requirement, would have raised the standards for the remaining 317 at-risk communities, bringing new homes to a higher standard. Homeowners would have qualified for annual, flood insurance premium discounts; local officials would have retained the authority to exceed the minimal requirement if so desired; and taxpayers would have been protected from avoidable future disaster costs.
Moreover, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) data, more than 24,000 of the homes affected in the East Baton Rouge event endured flooding of one foot or less. Arguably, if these homes had been constructed under the new proposed freeboard requirement, 24,000 families would have avoided costly, disruptive, and life-altering damage and recovery time.
Despite this timely evidence, the Louisiana State Uniform Construction Code Council dropped the freeboard minimum. As a result, Louisiana homes flooded in the future will lack elevation protection unless they are in one of the 33 jurisdictions that implement elevation requirements.
Florida Reverses Twenty-Five Year Code Leadership Legacy
Another example of the eroding commitment to resilience policy is in Florida, where state leaders last year upended the state’s nationally-acclaimed building code system.
Now, instead of mandatory, on-time updates every three years, the Florida Building Commission will use an approach that is certain to fall behind the minimum standards. Instead of using the model building code as the foundation upon which Florida-specific amendments are made, the system has been flipped. Now, we will have a patchwork of random, piecemeal updates that could undermine safety for all structures where we live, work, and play in the highly populated, and highly disaster-prone State of Florida.
The net effect is that Floridians can no longer count on the certainty of a “latest and greatest” building code that addresses normal, as well as disaster-related practices. New science and innovation will be left behind. The only updates to the new model codes that are guaranteed to be included in the Florida Building Code will be those to maintain eligibility for federal funding and discounts from the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), FEMA, and HUD; however, no clear process has been established to facilitate this outcome
There can be material financial costs to this policy as well. States with enhanced mitigation plans that include modern, model codes that are current and consistently enforced qualify for more federal disaster relief dollars. Typically, such states or tribal governments receive Hazard Mitigation Grant Program funds based on 20% of the total estimated eligible Stafford Act disaster assistance, versus 15% for those with non-enhanced mitigation plans.[x]
Flood Insurance Sales Rise Then Fall as Memories Fade
We see many examples of this cyclical pattern in public policy, as well as public behavior. Consider how flood insurance sales spike, level off, and drop after disaster memories fade as they did following the “Great” Missouri and Mississippi River Floods in 1993, Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, Hurricane Ike in 2008, and so many more. Will the pattern persist after Hurricane Harvey as well?
It may take decades for families affected by Harvey to forget the case for flood insurance, if ever. But the overall evidence is clear. According to FEMA, only 25% of those that need flood insurance have a policy in force today.
Beyond the Building Code – Behavior
While we believe resilience is impossible without building codes, there are additional critical drivers. Levels of individual and family preparedness in disaster zones can either strengthen or weaken disaster resilience, and as trusted voices, leaders provide an important impetus for individual action.
When inspired to do so, individuals will prepare at home, evacuate when ordered, and buy earthquake or flood insurance as the best hedge again financial ruin. But are we inspiring the public to drive resilience or just instructing them?
Editor’s Note: Our third next installment is entitled, “Human Biases – Barriers or Boosts to Resilience?” and will apply insights on risk communication from “The Ostrich Paradox” by Drs. Robert Meyer and Howard Kunreuther, a must-read for anyone working to advance disaster safety behavior change.
[i] Brian K. Sullivan. Nov. 28, 2017. “2017 Hurricane Season Ranks as Costliest Ever for U.S.” Insurance Journal. https://www.insurancejournal.com/news/national/2017/11/28/472368.htm
[ii] Brian K. Sullivan. Nov. 28, 2017. “2017 Hurricane Season Ranks as Costliest Ever for U.S.” Insurance Journal. https://www.insurancejournal.com/news/national/2017/11/28/472368.htm
[iii] Brian K. Sullivan. Nov. 28, 2017. “2017 Hurricane Season Ranks as Costliest Ever for U.S.” Insurance Journal. https://www.insurancejournal.com/news/national/2017/11/28/472368.htm
[iv] Brian K. Sullivan. Nov. 28, 2017. “2017 Hurricane Season Ranks as Costliest Ever for U.S.” Insurance Journal. https://www.insurancejournal.com/news/national/2017/11/28/472368.htm
[v] Mike Moffitt. Oct. 14, 2017. “It’s now the deadliest wildfires disaster in California history.” SFGATE. http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Tubbs-Fire-could-be-worst-in-California-history-12276628.php
[vi] Adam B. Smith. Jan. 8, 2018. “2017 U.S. billion-dollar weather and climate disasters: a historic year in context.” Climate.gov. https://www.climate.gov/news-features/blogs/beyond-data/2017-us-billion-dollar-weather-and-climate-disasters-historic-year
[vii] Associated Press. Jan. 31, 2018. “California Wildfires Caused $11.8 Billion in Damage in 2017. Time. http://time.com/5127379/california-wildfires-damage-total/
[ix] NOAA. “Tornadoes – April 2011.” https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/tornadoes/201104#0426
[x] FEMA. “Hazard Mitigation Planning Frequently Asked Questions.” https://www.fema.gov/hazard-mitigation-planning-frequently-asked-questions