Legislature Poised to Weaken Florida Building Codes

The nonprofit Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH) today reiterated its strong opposition to Senate Bill 1312 by Senator Keith Perry of Gainesville that would forever alter and weaken Florida’s nationally-acclaimed building code system.

Slated for consideration today, Senate Bill 1312 eliminates the requirement to update the Florida Building Code every three years using model building codes as the starting point or foundation. The measure instead proposes that the Florida Building Commission will review the model codes for changes “one at a time.” The proposed approach would not only be more complex, expensive and inefficient than the current system, but it will stymie progress and lead to building failures during ordinary and catastrophic times alike.

“We oppose this harmful legislation as it takes Florida backward to an inferior system that will leave families and communities at unnecessary risk,” said FLASH President and CEO Leslie Chapman-Henderson. “Sadly, decades of documented history indicate that our state must maintain a compulsory update system based on model codes or risk a return to a patchwork system of unequal construction standards and inferior, poor quality homes. This proposed, weakened system would leave Floridians exposed to physical danger and economic ruin.”

The proposal will:
• Move the current Florida Building Code steadily away from continuity with national, model codes;
• Place $60 million of flood insurance premium savings at risk;
• Compromise conformity across cities and counties leaving residents with unequal levels of protection—an antiquated system;
• Place unfair burdens on local governments to keep pace with innovation and new science without provision of necessary, additional resources;
• Overburden the Florida Building Commission that lacks the resources to approximate the national, model code development process (a $9 million per year investment);
• Introduce costly uncertainty and a lack of confidence that will drive down ratings by agencies, insurers, and catastrophe modelers; and,
• Cause avoidable, unfair and unnecessary suffering for consumers and communities for years to come.

Chapman-Henderson concluded, “After the deaths and billion dollar losses of Hurricane Andrew, Florida forged the most admirable building code system in the nation. Senate Bill 1312 would forever undermine that legacy, so we urge Florida’s leaders to protect our system, and reject any measure that places it at risk.” Additional information and resources are available in the commentary, The Case for Preserving Florida’s Building Code System.

It’s Time to Take a Modern Approach to Building in Tornado-Prone Areas

With the recent violent weather outbreak this weekend causing more tornado deaths in one weekend than the yearlong 2016 total, I am once again raising the issue of better building in tornado zones. First published in 2013, the Dual-Objective-Based Tornado Design Philosophy, defies traditional assertions that there is nothing you can affordably build to withstand tornadoes. Those rebuilding in the aftermath of the devastating storms have affordable options to protect their homes and families from future events.

This revolutionary engineering design concept emerged after Tuscaloosa, Joplin, and Moore tornado investigations. Adding $1 per square foot to the cost of construction to improve structural performance for property protection and incorporating tornado safe rooms for essential life safety can alter the pattern of death and destruction we continue to suffer. This weekend’s tragedy is more evidence that it is time to embrace a better way of building.

As noted in our paper, “Building Codes: The Foundation for Resilience” the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Building Science engineers, and leading academic researchers have called for a way of building to meet the challenge of saving lives while also preserving property in the face of tornado outbreaks.

The research-informed effort comes in response to field investigations that documented a pattern of disproportionate structure collapse in tornado outbreaks. They point out how even small design changes can make a difference, and they have developed guidelines to estimate the tornado-induced loads. This will provide reasonable targets for designers to use in their future work. Homes built to these newer, research-informed guidelines will have the advantage of better wall bracing, improved roof tie-downs, and overall stronger connections.

According to the newly released January 21-22 Southeastern U.S. Tornado Outbreak Report, published by the Wind Hazard Damage Assessment Group (WHDAG) of the University of Florida, the widespread catastrophic failures are not of themselves failures of engineering, but they are the inevitable result of policies that ignore tornado loads from minimum building design standards. It will be up to the populations in our communities (neighborhoods, towns, states) to decide whether to follow the lead of Moore, OK and implement tornado-resilient building codes in the future.

Dr. David O. Prevatt, Associate Professor of the University of Florida, Department of Civil and Coastal Engineering states, “If we can put a man on the moon, we can keep a roof on a house, and our research demonstrates it is possible to design and build houses that protect people and structures from deadly winds. Techniques developed and implemented in Florida that have reduced hurricane losses can be applied and used in houses to also reduce tornado losses.”

This approach is buoyed by the finding by the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) that 95 percent of tornado damage occurs at EF-3 and below. Accordingly, the Dual-Objective-Based Tornado Design Philosophy enhanced practices can bring material increases in home strength. Moreover, since 90 percent of all tornadoes never exceed EF-2 with winds of up to 135 mph, wind-resistant building practices can dramatically improve building performance in nearly every tornado event.

This is possibly one of the most important breakthroughs in high-wind design during the past two decades, as it offers an affordable innovation that can potentially improve life safety and economic well-being for millions of residents throughout the U.S.

Homes are a long-term investment. Eighty percent of our homes are more than 20 years old, and most of them will be around for at least another 30 years. Therefore, it’s important not only for individual families to make careful choices now as they rebuild, but each community must acknowledge its responsibility to rebuild in a resilient way.

Louisiana Leaders Weaken Flood Protection, Placing Cost on Homeowners and Taxpayers Alike

istock_000021502009_doubleI was honored to serve on the Louisiana Uniform Building Code Task Force that led to creation of the first statewide residential building code more than ten years ago. And, along with our many partners, we support state leaders and the Louisiana State Uniform Construction Code Council (LSUCCC) for creating a system to foster adoption and enforcement of current building codes to ensure the safety and welfare of the citizens of Louisiana.

Unfortunately, it appears that the LSUCCC is on the cusp of a policy decision today that will undermine the effectiveness of that very system created in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The LSUCCC is one vote away from adopting the 2015 International Residential Code (IRC), amended to remove the minimum one foot of elevated space (or freeboard) in special flood hazard areas. As you might imagine, the state famous as “Bayou Country” has an abundance of low-lying, special flood hazard areas.

Freeboard is the term handed down from nautical engineering where it describes the distance between the deck of a ship and the waterline. The higher the freeboard, the more protected the vessel is from taking on water. The same applies to buildings and homes. Freeboard provides a critical measure of safety and financial protection through extra height in elevation to keep floodwaters shy of the doorstep and out of a home.

Keeping just a few inches of water away is beneficial as it can prevent thousands of dollars of damage to floor finishes, electrical wiring, contents, and more. Two inches of water typically causes $21,000 in damage, and four inches will cost an average of $29,650.

The economic benefit of freeboard is proven, and was demonstrated during the East Baton Rouge flooding in August of this year. According to HUD data, approximately 24,000 of the substantially-damaged homes in that event experienced water less than one foot. This means that the one-foot freeboard requirement would have spared those families and prevented the catastrophic financial losses, disruption, and long-term recovery woes that continue today.

Another financial benefit of freeboard is that elevated structures receive annual flood insurance premium discounts with or without flooding activity. These savings add up over time and offset the initial, additional cost of construction. Further, the only cost-effective time to elevate is during new construction. Elevation after the fact is expensive, and sometimes impossible.

Ironically, it appears that Louisiana building officials are not opposed to freeboard, yet they support this weakening amendment because they prefer local control over a statewide code requirement. But the track record of local control is problematic. Only 33 jurisdictions of the 350 flood hazard jurisdictions in Louisiana have adopted the one-foot requirement. This means that only 10 percent of local officials have put these protections in place—leaving 90 percent of Louisiana residents unnecessarily at risk.

Despite our many partners’ efforts to articulate the overwhelming benefits of this logical, financially-advantageous practice, the LSUCCC seems determined to simultaneously weaken and update their most current residential code. When they do, they will not only deny Louisiana citizens essential safety and proven financial benefits, they will abandon the most effective and responsible disaster resilience action within their control.

By doing so, they are placing the financial burden on taxpayers when the inevitable floods return to Louisiana—a leadership low-point in a low-lying state.

As East Coast Marks Five-Year Earthquake Anniversary, Experts Across the U.S. Advance the Cause

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Today is the five-year anniversary of the 5.8M earthquake near Mineral, Virginia—the most widely felt quake in U.S. history, with shaking from New England to Chicago. The temblor damaged heritage buildings including the National Cathedral and Washington Monument, and shook up public perceptions of earthquake geography at the same time.

Since then, leaders have advanced policies that reflect their understanding that seismic risk is a national problem, not just a West Coast concern. One shining example is the new seismic standard for federal buildings showcased by the White House during a resilience summit in February of this year. The Executive Order creating the new standard effectively decreed that government should “walk the talk” with respect to stronger building codes by ensuring that public structures reflect current codes too.

While logical, this was not an easy task, and we applaud those that led the charge.

Also encouraging, there is now progress in the development of a U.S.-based Earthquake Early Warning (EEW) system as well. This is essential as just five to seven seconds of notice before an earthquake could prevent trains from derailing. The EEW system can trigger automatic closure of elevator doors, prevent fire station doors from jamming (trapping needed response vehicles), and it can lower crossing gates for bridges too.

These actions could mean the difference between life and death for thousands in a seismic event.

Equally important, sustained efforts are ongoing to remind those in regions like Western Tennessee, part of the greater New Madrid Seismic Zone, that earthquakes pose a real danger. Credible experts believe that catastrophic loss of life and property in Memphis would most certainly be compounded by global business interruption when the ground there rumbles once again.

I’ve written in this blog before about Memphis, and in our commentary series as well. Thirty percent of all U.S. goods flow through there each year. It is the location of the world’s second busiest cargo airport, and center of the FedEx Express global headquarters. Imagine the worldwide commerce disruption when the movement of packages and shipments stops, even for a day.

So as you can see, we’ve made real progress on earthquake safety and resilience during the past five years, but we have much more to do.

With that in mind, our organization led an elite array of partners and sponsors this May to present the quadrennial 2016 National Earthquake Conference (NEC) and address this question, What’s New, What’s Next, What’s Your Role in Building a National Strategy?

Together, we drew more than 350 global experts on the scientific and practical challenges wrought by earthquakes, tsunamis, and catastrophic risk in general. And the response from the gathered academics, analysts, businesses, communicators, elected officials, emergency managers, engineers, experts, insurers, journalists, modelers, product manufacturers, psychologists, responders, scientists, and volunteers was tremendous. These individuals participated because they share our dread of what will happen when the next “big one” hits.

You can feel the sense of urgency in this brief video.

The NEC drew an impressive array of journalists and news organizations as well, including the BBC, Los Angeles Times, Time Magazine and many more. As they took their seats, our first keynote speaker, Dr. Tom Jordan of USC Southern California Earthquake Center (global headquarters of the Great ShakeOut earthquake drill) answered the question, What’s New? with a presentation of new science showing how the South San Andreas fault is “locked, loaded, and ready to roll.”

He explained through vivid maps and visuals how we are not just due, but overdue, for a major earthquake there.

We anticipated news media interest in the conference, and Dr. Jordan’s presentation ensured it. After award-winning Los Angeles Times Reporter Ron Lin posted this riveting article about Dr. Jordan’s briefing, an explosion of national and international news headlines followed. “Locked, loaded, and ready to roll” dominated the national news dialogue for days and weeks to come.

Mr. Lin’s article sharpened audience attention (in-person and virtual) as the rest of us went on to highlight best practices and challenges in building codes, communication, emergency management, outreach, policy, product innovation, research, and science.

Ten days later, the Los Angeles Times reported that Governor Jerry Brown planned to infuse the EEW system with $10 million in state dollars. This was a departure from the California governor’s previous position. Next, Congressman Adam Schiff voiced his intention to rekindle his effort to get Oregon and Washington state leaders to support the EEW system.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, congressional leaders signaled active support for National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program (NEHRP) reauthorization. This is critical as NEHRP is the foundation for essential research that can advance breakthroughs like EEW systems, as well as seismic safety and resilience overall.

The 2016 NEC generated productive policy momentum that complements decades of work by the earthquake community, and experts like Dr. Lucy Jones. Today, as we recall the earthquake that emanated from rural Virginia five years ago, we must accept that earthquakes could happen nearly anywhere and, we must be ready when they do.

(Editor’s note: The preliminary media impact report from the 2016 National Earthquake Conference is available here. The full report and edited videos of program will be available later this year.)

Weather Channel’s “WX Geeks” Feature FLASH

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As you might imagine, the first question we often get when we encounter new contacts in our movement is, “What exactly is the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes or FLASH Partnership, and how does it work?” Because achieving disaster resilience requires integration of many different areas of expertise, our partners include academics, architects, builders, code experts, corporations, emergency managers, engineers, first responders, floodplain managers, insurers, leaders, manufacturers, meteorologists, modelers, researchers, scientists, and many more.

We are a diverse coalition with the conviction that good science should lead to good building practices, and, ultimately, safe families and strong communities that can both resist and bounce back from natural disasters. With this “road to resilience” in mind, we lead—through collaboration, communication, and innovation.

I recently sat down with Dr. Marshall Shepherd, host of The Weather Channel’s clever Sunday show, WX Geeks to talk about the FLASH Partnership and highlight our new national hurricane resilience initiative, #HurricaneStrong. Thanks to his expert interview skills, a great producing team, and a national news channel that lives its commitment to disaster resilience, we had a stellar opportunity to tell our story.

Enjoy.

When Legislators Forget About Building Codes, Hurricane Amnesia is Officially Here

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The Florida Building Codes enacted, enhanced, and consistently updated since the devastating building failures of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 are considered a national standard for excellence in high-wind construction.

So, when our advocacy partners sent up an “all hands alert” just two weeks before the close of the Florida Legislative session, we were shocked to learn that the Florida Building Code was under assault. Someone, apparently a Florida Home Builders Association representative, had convinced a few legislators that it would be good idea to extend the update cycle for the entire state’s code from a three-year to a six-year cycle.

They attempted this by adding an amendment added to Committee Substitute #2 on House Bill 535, stating: 

553.73 Florida Building Code.— 

 (7)(a) The commission, by rule adopted pursuant to ss.120.536 (1) and 120.54, shall update the Florida Building Code every 6 3 years.

This was done quietly as the bill headed to its last committee, and then off to the House floor. Senate Bill 704 was set to follow the same route. It’s important to note that often when legislation is made quietly and at the last minute, it’s because the action cannot hold up under public scrutiny. Or, as we like to say in Florida, it can’t survive the sunshine.

And such was the case here.

I’ve written about this growing issue before here in this blog, as well as in our paper, Disaster Resilience Rising Means the Time is Right.

The three-year cycle is used by Florida, and most states, because it follows the International Code Council development process of new model codes crafted through consensus on a three-year, recurring cycle. Even so, there is often an administrative tail on the final adoption. Regardless, when we adopt and enforce the newest building codes, our building practices stay current with new products, science innovation, and post-disaster insights.

Yet some states and jurisdictions, like Minnesota and North Carolina, have elongated code adoption from three to six, or even nine years. These extended code cycles not only leave citizens without the benefit of current model building codes, but also impede the disaster safety movement goal to rapidly incorporate beneficial, post-disaster findings into model codes.

Opponents of timely adoption have convinced some lawmakers that there is no harm in switching from a three-year to a longer, six-year update cycle. They argue that it provides a cost savings with no offsetting harm to the overall construction in those states.

But they could not be more wrong. Here is how we made our case to the Florida press:

Stalling the timely adoption of the newest building code represents a backward step for construction, design, innovation, and disaster resilience overall with negative impacts across many fronts.

1. Families will be denied the latest insights and advances in construction technology and the benefits of innovation and advances that deliver savings across energy, fire and other cost drivers (ordinary water losses and/or catastrophic losses). For example, this will put essential code enhancements for flood resistance on hold.

2. The excellent building code policy record in Florida is one of the most important supports for the often-stressed property insurance system. This type of policy setback could have devastating effects on the delicate balance that has been so hard won post-Andrew.

3. The El Niño year has already delivered the projected tornadic and high wind events. The expected La Niña could bring similarly heightened activity. Further, many credible meteorology professionals suggest strong potential for a hurricane season reminiscent of the 2004-2005 activity level.

Shortly after the news spread of these amendments altering the Florida building code cycle from three to six years, the effort was abandoned. And, we are very relieved that it failed. But we should all be wary. If any Florida Legislator can be convinced that we don’t need to maintain current building codes in the most high-risk hurricane state, then we are not only forgetting history, but we are dooming ourselves to repeat it.

With this in mind, we’ve launched a new initiative, #HurricaneStrong, to help remind the public, leaders, and families alike, that we must remain vigilant to remain disaster resilient. I hope you’ll join us.

How Big Data Means “Bigger is Better” for Weather Safety & Resilience

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As conversations about the application of Big Data come out of the 2016 World Economic Forum in Davos this week, I recall how the headline, Is IBM Building the Most Powerful Weather Service the World Has Ever Seen?, made perfect sense to me. The article described how IBM purchased The Weather Company’s digital and data assets in a deal inspired by opportunities in Big Data. The Wall Street Journal valued the transaction at more than $2 billion, and IBM described their rationale:

With this acquisition, IBM is going to harness one of the largest big data               opportunities in the world — weather. Weather is probably the single largest swing factor in business performance — it impacts 1/3 of the world’s GDP and in the U.S. alone, weather is responsible for about half a trillion dollars in impact. Weather affects every aspect of the economy – energy usage, travel and transportation, new construction, agricultural yields, mall and restaurant traffic, etc.

This move is a profound illustration of the opportunity that Big Data presents in the realm of disaster resilience, a topic we addressed in our paper, Understanding the Intersection of Resilience, Big Data, and the Internet of Things in a Changing Insurance Marketplace.

Truly, with $500 Billion (yes they say billion) in opportunity costs on the line, Big (weather) Data can not only inform to, but can revolutionize industries and movements across the world.

In my last blog, I discussed the movement behind resilience metrics—an issue that can be categorized as a “Big Data” problem. Like all sectors, we’re experiencing the advent of exploding amounts of data, and one growing source of this data is from the Internet of Things (IoT).

One IoT example in homes is the Nest Thermostat. The device not only indicates the temperature in your house, but it issues alerts if it detects significant temperature swings. The obvious advantage is that you learn of potential system problems right away. Consider the power of learning that your home temperature is dropping during winter weather conditions. This could provide invaluable lead time to prevent costly damage like frozen pipes, especially if you’re away from home when the alert arrives. The device can help you keep up with routine maintenance as well by tracking air filter usage, and reminding you when filters are ready to be changed.

Smart home technology like Nest’s helps us understand IoT and information (data) creation, but the questions of how to harness and leverage all the new information once we have it takes us back to the Big Data side of the equation…

Big Data issues are taking center stage in our movement as social science efforts explore the interrelation of Big Data and resilience at the United Nations’ Global Pulse, the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center, the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Japan Science and Technology Agency, and the World Bank. These initiatives raise common issues around resilience and Big Data, including:

  • How can we protect privacy while still benefitting from the data?
  • How (can) the different, emerging resiliency efforts integrate into an understandable system?
  • Who are the decision-makers, data owners, and what are their rights?
  • Should insurers/reinsurers heighten engagement or simply design their own system?

It’s clear that tremendous value lies in the use of Big Data, like the IBM weather data deal described above. What we envision is applying Big Data on building features managed through a philosophy of transparency to benefit residents and communities alike. We want to capture and share the relevant building data that drives ultimate home performance during a disaster or over time, and I will cover this in a future blog.

IBM’s vision for Big (weather) Data is just the start. We all must get and stay involved to ensure we leverage Big Data, one of most promising and powerful tools for creating a reliably strong, safe and durable built environment. As we know, that is the most essential element of resilience.