Reviewing the 2017 Disaster Season – Hurricane Maria

This is the sixth installment from 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.

Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico as a category 4 storm with 155 mph winds, the strongest to hit Puerto Rico in more than 80 years.[i] Puerto Rico is still striving to gain recovery momentum due to extreme problems with local coordination and persistent power grid weaknesses.

The implications of the power grid failure are hard to understate. One article, “After Four Months, Much of Puerto Rico Still Dark and Damaged,” illustrated the challenges and status of Puerto Rico.

What We Knew and Learned

Ricardo Alvarez-Diaz, president of the Puerto Rico Builders Association, stated that about 55% of all structures in Puerto Rico haven’t been built to code partly because the government lacks an adequate process for code certification during the building process. [ii] Mr. Alvarez-Diaz also said that the approximately 250,000 housing units damaged in the latest hurricane season would have been much less if they had all been built to code.[iii]

We knew that Puerto Rico was vulnerable to hurricanes and power outages as well as other perils, especially earthquakes. FLASH and FEMA were in Puerto Rico in August 2017 conducting Ready Business workshops in San Juan and Mayagüez to help businesses address these very threats through preparedness. The workshops focused on the 2016 power outage[iv] and how it affected local businesses and the economy.

What we did not expect was the depth of the building code administration and enforcement challenges in Puerto Rico. One of our team members joined the FEMA-led Mitigation Assessment Team (MAT) in December 2017, bringing his perspective as a general contractor, former building official of a large jurisdiction in Florida, floodplain manager, and seasoned mitigation advocate. The first question on the ground was, “What building codes are used in Puerto Rico?” The consensus is that the code is good and strong, but it lacks consistent administration and enforcement processes. The enforcement gap is also typical in many areas of the United States.

Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory, but its building code is analogous to other “statewide” building codes, although it should be called territory-wide in Puerto Rico’s case. According to those on the ground, the permitting and inspection system in place does not yield consistently inspected structures. This is evidenced by the abundance of “informal construction” in Puerto Rico, or construction in which building codes or permits were not followed. Adding real penalties for work without a permit, hiring local inspectors, and setting up building officials with training in the I-Codes could make a material improvement in both every day as well as disaster resilience.

In 1998, Hurricane Georges (a category 1 hurricane) served as a catalyst for mitigation efforts in Puerto Rico, but early evidence from Maria indicates that some of the efforts didn’t go as far as they could have.

Observations on the ground painted a picture of opportunities for improvement. For example, a seven-story municipal building, built in 1992, had substantial wind damage to its roof, as well as water intrusion damage. The site investigation revealed hurricane shutters were placed only on one side of the building, and impact-resistant glass was not used on the windows.

One of the most powerful sets of tools for smart and effective recovery comes from one of our founding and Legacy Partners, the engineers of FEMA Building Science Branch. After major disasters, they lead forensic engineering missions and produce assessment reports, recovery advisories, and provide technical counsel on the ground through temporary deployment to the affected communities.

Reports can include detailed findings regarding building performance, as well as failures, along with recommendations for improvements in minimum standards, materials, and other resilience considerations. FEMA’s insights and professional counsel are invaluable and essential to aid hurricane-impacted communities, as well as inform to future models of building codes and standards.

How We Are Moving Forward

We are encouraged by innovation and ideas under consideration to make Puerto Rico’s electric grid more resilient.[v]

As Puerto Rico rebuilds, the effort to do so resiliently can be institutionalized by exploring every option to hire additional staff and garner resources to support the inspection and permitting process.

While Puerto Rico received much of the media attention post-Maria, it is critical to remember that the Virgin Islands endured devastating impacts as well. The Virgin Islands suffered what the New York Times aptly described as an Irma/Maria “one-two punch”.[vi] The negative affect on tourism was immediate, however, the islands are recovering as swiftly as possible. Tourism is both the livelihood for many Virgin Islanders, as well as a third of the local gross domestic product.[vii]

At the time of this writing, USVI leaders had demonstrated widespread acceptance of the opportunity to modernize during recovery and rebuilding. The FEMA-led mission is on the ground there now, and we are optimistic that they will not only rebuild, but they will set a new standard for safe and resilient construction in the Caribbean.

We are encouraged to see the focus in both these communities on building back better and the growing awareness of the essential linkage between codes and disaster survival.

[i] Danica Coto. Sept. 21, 2017. “A stunned Puerto Rico seeks to rebuild after Hurricane Maria.” Sun Sentinel. http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/weather/hurricane/fl-reg-hurricane-maria-puerto-rico-caribbean-florida-20170919-story.html

[ii]Emily Nonko. Dec. 5, 2017. “Weak Building Code Enforcement Exacerbates Destruction in Puerto Rico.” The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/weak-building-code-enforcement-exacerbates-destruction-in-puerto-rico-1512475200.

[iii]Emily Nonko. Dec. 5, 2017. “Weak Building Code Enforcement Exacerbates Destruction in Puerto Rico.” The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/weak-building-code-enforcement-exacerbates-destruction-in-puerto-rico-1512475200.

[iv] Jeffrey Acevedo, Nelson Quinones, and Josuea Berlinger. Sept. 22, 2016. “Nearly 1.5 million without power in Puerto Rico.” CNN. http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/21/americas/puerto-rico-power-outage/index.html

[v] Jonathan Levin. Oct. 22, 2017. “Puerto Rico Lays Out Energy Future With Tesla, Privatization.” Bloomberg. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-10-23/puerto-rico-lays-out-energy-future-with-tesla-privatization; Steve Cimino. Oct. 24, 2017. “Architect leads team to power Puerto Rico, post-Maria.” AIA. https://www.aia.org/articles/158516-architect-leads-team-to-power-puerto-rico-p?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social%20&utm_campaign=aiaorg

[vi] Jeremy W. Peters. Sept. 27, 2017. “In the Virgin Islands, Hurricane Maria Drowned What Irma Didn’t Destroy.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/27/us/hurricane-maria-virgin-islands.html

[vii] Jeremy W. Peters. Sept. 27, 2017. “In the Virgin Islands, Hurricane Maria Drowned What Irma Didn’t Destroy.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/27/us/huricane-maria-virgin-islands.html

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/.

Human Biases – Barriers or Boosts to Resilience?

Businessman with his head in the sand

This is the third installment from our new commentary, “Learning from the 2017 Disasters to Create a Reliably Resilient U.S.” In this discussion, we apply risk communication insights to understand biases that block progress in the disaster safety movement.

 

What can explain the above cases where facts and experience clearly show that we need to change how we prepare to respond, survive, and recover from disaster, yet resilience policy isn’t embraced? Is there a more effective way to communicate risk and support the behaviors that drive resilience? Through the cross-disciplinary body of literature and research on disaster resilience and social science, a powerful insight is provided by an examination of the role of biases.

In 2017, The Ostrich Paradox by Robert Meyer and Howard Kunreuther[i] identified six core biases that affect disaster preparedness. We applaud the authors for their clear presentation of the information, and we suggest it can serve as a powerful risk communication primer. The authors provide information about the biases, insight on how to conduct a behavioral risk audit to understand the psychological biases that inhibit adoption, and then propose policies that work with, not against, natural psychologies.

Here are the six core biases identified in The Ostrich Paradox alongside the suggested approaches the authors offer to overcome same:

  1. Myopia: a tendency to focus on overly short future time horizons when appraising immediate costs and the potential benefits of protective investments;
    • Remedy: tactics and incentives that lower the short-term costs of preparation
  2. Amnesia: a tendency to base decisions on most recent experiences, overlooking lessons of the past
    • Remedy: communication tactics that correct distorted memories of the past
  3. Optimism: a tendency to underestimate the likelihood of personal harm
    • Remedy: communication tactics that enhance beliefs about hazard likelihoods and impacts
  4. Inertia: a tendency to maintain the status quo or adopt a default option when there is uncertainty about the potential benefits of investing in alternative protective measures;
    • Remedy: policies that make safer actions the default in each setting
  5. Simplification: a tendency to process only limited subsets of information
    • Remedy: policies that simplify the set of preparedness choices faced by individuals
  6. Herding: a tendency to make decisions by social imitation.
    • Remedy: tactics designed to foster stronger social norms of safety

The authors make a compelling case for factors to consider in communicating with the public in harm’s way. Their approach resonated with us particularly well as our nonprofit organization was formed twenty years ago to drive a “social value” for disaster safety. Our strategies and tactics confront and leverage the bias they label “herding.” Others label it “milling.” In our efforts, we call it “social norming”.

Prior to the return of frequent, land-falling major hurricanes striking the U.S. in 2016, raising public awareness and promoting leadership action on hurricane preparedness and mitigation policy was becoming difficult. Some states decided to skip building code update cycles, and others defunded public awareness programs. Many retailers stopped hosting hurricane expositions, and the consensus inside stakeholder circles was that “Hurricane Amnesia” had set in.

To address the problem, FLASH brought together representatives from academia, big data organizations, broadcast meteorology, FEMA, NOAA, insurance companies, product manufacturers, news organizations, and risk communication groups to identify potential solutions. Together, we created the “National Hurricane Resilience Initiative” as an open-source, umbrella effort to align messaging and timing and get everyone on the “same page” with five common, key messages to promote and elevate hurricane resilience.

  • Personal Safety – Know your evacuation zone
  • Financial Security – Have an insurance check-up
  • Family Preparedness – Build a disaster supply kit
  • Damage Prevention – Strengthen your home
  • Community Service – Help your neighbor

The timing alignment included moving the annual NOAA Hurricane Awareness Tour (HAT) to line up with the White House declaration of “National Hurricane Preparedness Week.” The initiative also included creation of a new national event and social media campaign entitled #HurricaneStrong.

Now in its third year, the campaign has reached millions, including governors, mayors, corporate leaders, celebrities, and citizens. Through participation, they learned that to be #HurricaneStrong, you must start with the five key steps listed above.

Since the launch in May of 2016, the #HurricaneStrong campaign has created a simple, common language and “call to arms” to drive buy-in. It has drawn tens of thousands of leaders and citizens to events and reached millions more through traditional news and social media outreach.

The initiative inspired The Weather Channel to sign on as the national media partner and offer free Public Service Announcements aired during prime hurricane season slots. One home improvement store offered workshops in 700 stores, simultaneously, on a single day during the official “week,” and it successfully ignited creative spinoff volunteer events from San Antonio to Norfolk at Walmart stores, minor league baseball games, festivals, and more.

Our experience shows that organizing our collective messaging “act” is only the first step of many more that we need to take to get ahead of the audience’s needs.

Editor’s Note: Our fourth installment will present a detailed review of the 2017 disasters with insights on early actions taken to break the cycle and build back better. We look forward to your comments and input on this critical topic.

[i] Robert Meyer and Howard Kunreuther. 2017. The Ostrich Paradox: Why We Underprepare for Disasters. The Wharton School. University of Pennsylvania. Wharton Digital Press.   

The “Build-Destroy-Rebuild” Barrier to Resilience

Break the Cycle

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/

[viii] https://www.climate.gov/news-features/blogs/beyond-data/2017-us-billion-dollar-weather-and-climate-disasters-historic-year

[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

National Disaster Resilience Conference Recap Report Now Available

NDRC

As communities started recovery in the wake of the unprecedented 2017 disaster losses of an estimated 250 billion dollars, public, private, and government thought leaders came together at the National Disaster Resilience Conference – Science, Policy, and Practice (#NDRC17) in Atlanta to forge a stronger vision for the future.

The conference took place from October 25 to 27, and attendees focused on how to improve science, policy, and practice to enhance life safety and improve building performance in the wake of earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires. Findings from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, as well as the California wildfires and Mexico earthquakes took center stage and provided real time inspiration for the leaders to increase future resilience for all communities.

Here is a link to the program recap, slides, video, and feedback survey.

How to be #HurricaneStrong for Hurricane Harvey

We shared this write-up today with our top tips for those in the path of Hurricane Harvey. This information is based on our experience for the past 19 years, and it covers some important lessons learned. For a more information, please visit www.flash.org, www.hurricanestrong.org, or https://www.youtube.com/user/StrongHomes. And please feel free to share. We will be on Twitter @FederalAlliance with #HurricaneStrong and our Facebook page now through the end of Harvey. 

Since 1998, the nonprofit Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH) has worked with families before, during, and after natural disasters. As Texas and Louisiana communities face the potential of destructive winds and flooding from Hurricane Harvey, here are their top “lessons learned” for life safety and property protection ahead of the storm.

1. Minimize Danger – Understand the Power of Rushing Water

According to the National Hurricane Center, storm surge accounts for approximately half the deaths in hurricanes since 1970. The National Weather Service (NWS) tells us that these tragedies happen because people underestimate the force, speed, and power of water. A modest six inches of fast-moving water can knock down an adult, 12 inches can carry away a small car, and 24 inches will move an SUV. That’s why FLASH and NWS created the Turn Around, Don’t Drown program in 2003 with lifesaving reminders. Watch this video to learn more, and remember that where it rains, it can flood.

2. Know Your Zone – Define Evacuation Needs

Two critical steps for survival are to identify whether you reside in a storm surge evacuation zone and to develop a plan for where you will be when the waters rise. Once you have your plan in place, heed all evacuation orders, and do so quickly. Remember, making the right decision to either stay or leave on a timely basis will keep you, your family, and your community’s first responders out of harm’s way. Use this updated list from FLASH to Find Your Evacuation Zone today.

3. Avoid Regrets – Secure Supplies and Build a Kit

You’ll need to plan for two situations—remaining home or evacuating to a different location. Click here for a comprehensive list of supplies that you will need to stay comfortable and safe.

4. Act Now – Reduce Home and Contents Damage

You still have time for some meaningful steps to protect your property from Harvey. Take the following actions to protect from expected flooding:

  • Clean out gutters and ensure downspouts are clear to allow water to flow away from the home.
  • Prepare and place sandbags using these steps to ensure they don’t topple. (Don’t forget to review safe disposal guidelines.)
  • Elevate, wrap, and move valuable carpets, electronics, and furniture to a higher floor or alternate location.
  • Secure cleanup materials (masks, gloves, mops, buckets, bleach, etc.) before the storm.

Click here for a full list of pre-storm flood mitigation options. If you reside in an area where high winds are expected, click on this link to read or watch a video with hurricane prep steps broken into one-hour, one-day, and one-weekend checklists.

5. Stay Connected – Communication is Key

Visit www.flashweatheralerts.org to download a severe weather alerting App for your iOS or Android powered device. Scroll down to “Settings” and select “Notifications”. Choose all relevant coastal, flood, hurricane, thunderstorm, tornado, and wind alerts to ensure you stay up-to-date with all watches and warnings issued by the NWS. This App costs $4.99 (less than a typical $30 weather radio), and $1 of each sale supports FLASH.

Be sure to refresh your supply of batteries, flashlights, and hand crank or solar-powered chargers. Keep a landline telephone plugged in as battery-powered phones will not work during a power outage.

6. Buy Insurance – The Key to Recovery

Homeowners, renters, and flood insurance policies are the most effective financial recovery tools available for storm victims, but often many realize too late that flood insurance is a separate policy that requires a 30-day waiting period. It’s likely that you won’t be able to add a flood policy or change any of your regular policy coverage in time for Hurricane Harvey, but you should still contact your agent or company in advance. Understanding your policy limits, co-insurance, deductibles, and where to call with any claims will come in handy if you are affected by the storm.

Whether you reside along the coast or well inland, planning now and following the above advice can help you if Hurricane Harvey heads your way. For more information, visit www.flash.org, email info@flash.org, follow @FederalAlliance on Twitter, follow FLASH on Facebook, or call (877) 221-SAFE (7233).

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.