Reviewing the 2017 Disaster Season – Hurricane Irma

This is the fifth installment of posts that make up our new commentary paper entitled, “Learning from the 2017 Disasters to Create a Reliably Resilient U.S.” The full commentary will be shared on June 1 to mark the beginning of the 2018 hurricane season.

Irma made initial landfall in the Florida Keys on September 10, and then moved north up Florida’s Gulf Coast. Models showed that the storm was headed directly for Miami but it took a turn to the west that helped it avoid a direct hit.[i] Irma was almost as large as the state of Texas, and both Florida coasts felt hurricane-force winds.[ii] Irma destroyed an estimated 95% of buildings in parts of St. Martin, and devastated parts of St. Barts and the Virgin Islands.[iii] The Florida Keys and the southwestern Florida coastline experienced damage, and flooding occurred in already oversaturated parts of Florida and southern Georgia.[iv] Irma’s eyewall passed north of Puerto Rico knocking out power in an eerie foreshadowing of the direct hit by Maria later the same month.

Irma had a widespread impact on the power grid, resulting in 16 million people across the southeastern U.S., mostly in Florida, losing power.[v]

What We Knew

We knew the need to prepare for power outages, including the critical messages surrounding safe operation of generators to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. Tragically, carbon monoxide deaths occurred, and deaths from heat exhaustion occurred as well. The most shocking cases included the deaths of twelve residents of a South Florida nursing home located across the street from a hospital.

We knew that homes in Florida could be subjected to hurricane winds, even inland. In 2004, Hurricane Charley cut across the middle of the state to wreak havoc on Central Florida, toppling 10,000 trees in Orlando alone. However, Irma was unique in how it covered the state in forecast projections. The omnipresent storm threat made it extremely difficult for families to make evacuation judgments and plan their routes, especially as the forecast track shifted.

Regardless of the typical difficultly brought by a shifting track, evacuation in areas subject to storm surge should be automatic, no questions asked. “Run from the water” is the adage. Anticipating wind damage makes the evacuation calculus a little trickier.

During Irma, many families were unsure if their home was strong enough to endure the potential category 3, 4, or 5 storm. Those with homes built since the new Florida Building Code, March 2002 and after, were more confident. However, forecasters have a difficult time pinpointing the exact location where a hurricane will make landfall until it is generally too late to evacuate. Further, many people do not know when their home was built or to what standard. We believe this was part of why thousands of Floridians evacuated. And, as the entire state was in the shadow of the potential Irma landfall, most headed north and found themselves in heavy traffic.

Charley, Irma, and many other hurricanes have repeatedly proven that storms can affect any area of Florida. That is why we believe that all Florida homes should be built to withstand hurricanes. Imagine the confidence and ease that thousands of families would have enjoyed if they knew, with certainty, how their home would perform under high-wind conditions. Moreover, imagine the reduction in community upheaval that the confident, in situ population would enjoy.

The current Florida Building Code is strong, and it appears that buildings built to meet the Florida Building Code performed well. The Florida Keys may have experienced a test of the code by experiencing nearly the design level (the highest wind speeds that the building code is designed to withstand), but most of Florida did not experience design-level wind speeds.

Nonetheless, newer homes performed better as they were without the roof degradation caused by the Florida sun and heat, and the materials were less worn overall.

This makes the building code story in Florida very ironic. The newspapers celebrated the strong homes that survived, crediting the strong Florida building codes. Fast-forward five years or more, and this success may not be replicated due to the legislative change made in 2017 and described in our post on May 1 entitled, The Build-Destroy-Rebuild Barrier to Resilience. Florida is now statutorily-destined to steadfastly fall behind and miss out on innovations that could help lessen damage in years to come.

This policy outcome was a clear case of myopia. The short-sighted focus on the minor administrative costs of maintaining an updated building code won out against the long-term safety benefits. And amnesia. Florida had gone a long time without experiencing a severe hurricane threat.

Irma brought devastation to the Florida Keys, but we cannot forget the devastation Irma brought to the Caribbean.[vi] These outcomes should serve as a reminder to the rest of Florida and the U.S., that Irma’s impact could have been so much worse if early predictive models had come to fruition.

How We Are Moving Forward

Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Irma in 2017 had the potential to bring wide scale, utter devastation to Florida. Fortunately, neither storm lived up to its full forecast potential, even though there were disastrous and catastrophic impacts for many who suffered death, injury, anxiety, fear, flooding, damaging winds, and power outages.

As such, we must work harder and more creatively to convey the risk at any level to individuals, families, businesses, and leaders while we simultaneously convey the simple and economical things that can be done to protect both people and buildings.

As discussed in the last blog post about Hurricane Harvey, the most powerful and economical thing to do to protect people and buildings is to adopt minimum building standards through use of a modern building code. Minimum codes should be uniformly in place in every community as they deliver premier consumer protection against natural disasters losses and a means to ensure everyday safety and durability as well.

Transparency is one of the strongest tools for improved consumer fairness. We believe that is exactly what is needed in the building code policy arena. In an earlier blog, we referenced survey findings that identified a gap between consumer understanding of building performance in disasters and building codes. In the same survey, we also identified high consumer expectations of builders and leaders regarding disaster resilience. What this tells us is that while consumers may not always understand the direct correlation between building codes and improved building performance in disasters, they do have a strong expectation of their leaders to keep them safe. Perhaps we can close the gap between consumer expectations and resilience policy leadership by adding these insights to the growing body of powerful economic studies that demonstrate the return on investment of mitigation.

Many local leaders already understand their community’s expectations as well as the economic case, and some are acting by preventing further degradation of sound building code policies.

In 2018, while Florida leaders did not reverse the negative building code legislation that weakened the system in 2017, they did reject H.B. 299, a measure proposed by the homebuilding industry that would have weakened the quality and integrity of the Florida Building Commission. The unsuccessful measure proposed to shrink the body by eliminating many of the seats for relevant specialty professions that currently serve.

Additionally, the Florida Legislature passed legislation requiring every nursing home and assisted living facility in Florida to have emergency generators.[vii]

In the Florida Keys where Irma’s high winds did the most damage, local leaders in Monroe County have pushed for a new regulation to require all roofs be constructed using wind-resistant metal. The Monroe County Board of County Commissioners discussed this issue during its January 17, 2018 meeting.

Another positive trend is that flood insurance sales are increasing and private flood insurance offerings are growing, albeit at a very modest pace. This is only possible due to law changes that allow for private companies to participate.

Perhaps the best model of resilience leadership is in North Florida where Leon County experienced damage and extensive power outages from Hurricane Hermine in 2016. In 2017, the North Florida county (my home) was briefly predicted to endure a direct hit from Hurricane Irma.

Following those experiences, Leon County Government leaders identified the desire to advance resilience and partnered with FLASH to explore available programs and initiatives to accomplish same. Through the collaboration, we identified the opportunity to prototype a #HurricaneStrong community by benchmarking against existing, objective and subjective criteria of various resilience elements, including the following:

  • Engaged Leadership (Elected Officials, Staff)
  • Current, model building codes adopted/enforced
  • Excellent BCEGS rating (1-4)
  • Excellent Floodplain Management/CRS Rating
  • Widespread Community Awareness/Outreach (multiple programs)
  • NOAA/NWS StormReady Designation
  • Resilient Businesses/Organizations – Completion of the FEMA/FLASH Ready Business Workshops and protocols
  • Resilient School Systems

Through the initiative, Leon County Government has expanded public outreach programming, invested in the Ready Business workshop effort, and is serving as an ambassador to other communities to raise awareness and provide support to engage community leaders across the state and country.

We announced this initiative in March at the National Hurricane Conference, and nearly a dozen additional communities came forward to pursue the honorary designation. We see this as another positive indication of leadership intentions regarding resilience, and we look forward to highlighting these leaders and sharing the news as the next #HurricaneStrong communities come online.

[i] Kevin Loria and Dave Mosher. Sept. 11, 2017. “Irma is finally leaving Florida and now hammering Georgia – here’s the latest.” Business Insider. http://www.businessinsider.com/hurricane-irma-strength-category-forecast-updates-2017-9

[ii] Kevin Loria and Dave Mosher. Sept. 11, 2017. “Irma is finally leaving Florida and now hammering Georgia – here’s the latest.” Business Insider. http://www.businessinsider.com/hurricane-irma-strength-category-forecast-updates-2017-9

[iii] Kevin Loria and Dave Mosher. Sept. 11, 2017. “Irma is finally leaving Florida and now hammering Georgia – here’s the latest.” Business Insider. http://www.businessinsider.com/hurricane-irma-strength-category-forecast-updates-2017-9

[iv] Lori Rozsa. Sept. 15, 2017. “In north Florida, Hurricane Irma made tranquil waters angry and dangerous.” The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2017/09/15/in-north-florida-hurricane-irma-made-tranquil-waters-angry-and-dangerous/?utm_term=.f3341d2ba6ba

[v] Joel Achenbach, et al. Sept. 17, 2017. “Hurricanes Harvey and Irma offer sobering lessons in the power of nature.” The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/hurricanes-harvey-and-irma-offer-sobering-lessons-in-the-power-of-nature/2017/09/17/b6ac46e6-9951-11e7-87fc-c3f7ee4035c9_story.html?utm_term=.43a2adb026de

[vi] Sept. 7, 2017. “Hurricane Irma wreaks apocalyptic damage in the Caribbean.” The Washington Post. http://www.nola.com/hurricane/index.ssf/2017/09/hurricane_irma_caribbean_damag.html

[vii] Mar. 26, 2018. “Gov. Scott Signs Legislation Requiring Emergency Generators at All Florida Nursing Homes and Assisted Living Facilities.” https://www.flgov.com/2018/03/26/gov-scott-signs-legislation-requiring-emergency-generators-at-all-florida-nursing-homes-and-assisted-living-facilities/.

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