Moving Science and Policy into Practice – A Strategy for Success

This is the eighth 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.

The 2017 disasters revealed, and in all cases reminded us, that we have tremendous opportunities to mitigate and lessen impacts of these events. One of the most powerful means of improvement can come through better use of science that is incorporated into policy and practice on a reliably systematic basis. That is why our strategy is to mainstream useful science into use by leaders either as enlightened public policy or for use by all who affect our disaster resilience as improved building practices.

This is the case for collaboration with code officials, design professionals, elected officials, emergency managers, homebuilders, journalists, meteorologists, product manufacturers, and many others. But our most important target audience for sharing empowering information is the one with the most at stake: the consumer.

We focus on knowledge dissemination and application of developed research. We look to existing literature on how individuals perceive their vulnerability to disaster and the adoption of hazard adjustments, looking to research across disciplines, including communication, sociology, anthropology, political science, and psychology.[i] We continuously examine and adjust our risk communication techniques, defined as the intentional efforts on the part of one or more sources to provide information about hazards and hazard adjustments through a variety of channels to different audience segments.[ii]

In the end, we advance understanding to drive change.

Takeaways from 2017 – The Disaster Safety Movement Mandate for Action

Initially, we found the prospect of identifying trends and drawing conclusions out of the 2017 experience one of our most difficult tasks. However, despite the geographic diversity of hazards from floods and high wind to power outages and wildfires, we have found common themes and a clear mandate for improvement through commitment to these pillars.

  1. Modern, model building codes, standards, and floodplain regulations that are adopted on time and effectively enforced are non-negotiable.

Communities in the path of Hurricane Harvey fared better if they were elevated, like those in the Woodlands Reserve. A photographic array of homes along the coast in Rockport, Texas depicts different levels of damage depending on the vintage of the building code followed. So far, the stark differences in buildings that either failed or performed during Harvey is driving reexamination by responsible Houston and Texas leaders regarding floodplain management. We urge them to embrace more uniformly adopted and enforced residential codes as well, especially for counties without protections in place.

In the Keys, Hurricane Irma showed that homes built to the excellent Florida building code performed well, even when tested to near design-level winds. This validates our contention that Florida leaders need to reverse their 2017 legislative action and revert to the proven system to preserve Florida’s strong and certain codes. When they do, they can spare the Keys, and the entire hurricane-exposed Florida peninsula, a steady degradation of the best asset to ensure citizen safety and economic vitality after future hurricanes.

Homes built in Puerto Rico using cast-in-place concrete withstood high winds and a great deal of flooding too, but code enforcement should be improved territory-wide to ensure the benefits extend to all the island’s communities. Modernization of the building code system in the USVI is underway, and their efforts can serve as a model for leaders in the Caribbean, as well as stateside.

Wildfires in California make the case for evaluation of wildfire potential beyond the WUI, redefinition of at-risk communities, better mapping, investment in updated landslide maps, and expanded prohibition of combustible building materials and components.

Indisputably, building codes, standards, and smart floodplain management are the first and most important lines of defense in disasters of all kinds. If our structures fail, resilience is impossible. These default protections should be put in place to blunt inertia and simplification biases for leaders and to provide protection for communities.

  1. The basics are not basic, they are everything. We cannot repeat the core messages enough.

Those in the disaster safety and resilience community have learned and shared the same disaster safety messages repeatedly, but our familiarity should not cloud the need for ordered risk communication coupled with a constant reexamination of the efficacy of our efforts.

Mass marketing is a thing of the past. A “one size fits all” messaging approach does not work for diverse audiences, and now is the time to bring our most creative ideas and enthusiasm to messaging the basics of disaster safety against what sometimes seems like the Sisyphean task of reaching everyone. All audiences need to hear essential, key messages that will empower them to become resilient in the face of a single disaster, or multiple, major disasters in rapid succession like in 2017.

Perhaps our first and most important step is to develop an accepted set of heuristics, or “rules of thumb” to drive improved communication effectiveness. During the last few years, the FEMA Individual and Community Preparedness Division took on this challenge by creating a compendium of multi-hazard protective actions to boost safety in disasters. Now we need to spread this knowledge.

Earlier in this commentary, we outlined the FLASH #HurricaneStrong outreach campaign that created a simple, common language and “call to arms” to drive buy-in and preparedness actions before hurricanes. The campaign has not only given trusted voices a way to support five consistent messages, it has evolved into a community designation program that allows leaders to declare and articulate support for resilience.

A #HurricaneStrong community meets established objective and subjective criteria that drive improvement in safety, the built environment, economic resilience, and overall public engagement of hurricane-prone communities. Leaders following proven steps to safeguard their citizens will be now recognized for doing so.

  1. We must improve messaging to individuals, families, and community leaders before, during, and after disasters. Then, we must make the conversation two-way.

The Ostrich Paradox describes two cognitive systems. System one is for automated and instinctive thoughts, and system two is for more controlled thoughts. The authors describe late evacuations during Superstorm Sandy in a storm surge area as an example of a lack of knowledge of the hazard (storm surge) combined with an impulse to act from the first cognitive system (fear).

The biases at work here may include myopia (evacuating is more difficult/expensive than the short-term comfort of staying in my home); amnesia (the last hurricane wasn’t that bad); optimism (it won’t happen to me; forecasts change); inertia and simplification (there are so many things to do to evacuate, so I’ll just stay home); and herding (none of my neighbors are evacuating; a culture of we don’t leave our houses/we’ll be fine).

At the time of this writing, we do not have complete analysis of the precise patterns of decision-making that led to evacuation action or inactions in 2017, but we see a clear need for new collaborative research regarding evacuation behavior for storm surge, high winds, and wildfires. Additionally, we need more research-informed messaging insights to address the low percentage of flood insurance purchases, especially by those with economic means who reside in the high hazard areas.

We need to understand the message disconnect between perceived need and necessary behavioral change, and we need to accomplish this soon. It is our understanding that only 20% of the more than 136,000 homes flooded by Hurricane Harvey were insured for flood damage. According to FEMA, these families will qualify for an average of only $9,000 of assistance to rebuild under the programs currently in place. In many cases, the assistance is a loan that must be repaid.

How can we convey these harsh realities ahead of the next storm? Moreover, as we hone our message to improve effectiveness, how do we devise systems that allow for two-way communication as well?

Beyond traditional audiences who bring challenges as described above, it is our conviction that citizens with disabilities, access, and functional needs deserve and require more intense, individualized attention and messaging as well.

We must prioritize them, and that leads us to our next and final pillar.

  1. Inclusive disaster-resilience planning and practice is not mainstream.

Harvey, Irma, and the California wildfires reminded us to ensure our disaster preparations are tailored to our family’s needs, yet those with disabilities, access, and functional needs require extra preparations and assistance.

The nation watched in shock as Harvey-induced flooding left elderly residents of one Texas nursing home sitting in rising waters. Hurricane Irma generated power outages in South Florida, and twelve residents in one nursing home died after they succumbed to the unbearable, excessive heat. The California Wildfires resulted in the deaths of many older adults[iii], highlighting that limited mobility and unreliable cellphone service must be considered when preparing this population.[iv]

These outcomes should remain the focus of our most intense efforts at improvement. These citizens deserve our highest order of care.

To ensure we never forget, we need to accept, embrace, and advance the adage that those who can get ready without assistance have the responsibility to do so. Once we prepare, we can stand aside and allow the finite available resources to focus on those that need them.

The 2017 events demonstrate that we have a great deal more work to do to fulfill our potential and obligation to serve this population in our communities.

[i] National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. P. 107. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; Sheppard, Ben, Melissa Janoske, and Brooke Liu. “Understanding Risk Communication Theory: A Guide for Emergency Managers and Communicators,” Report to Human Factors/Behavioral Sciences Division, Science and Technology Directorate, U.S. Department of Homeland Security. College Park, MD: START, 2012. http://www.start.umd.edu/sites/default/files/files/publications/UnderstandingRiskCommunicationTheory.pdf

[ii] National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. p.112. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.

[iii] Alene Tchekmedyian and Esmeralda Bermudez. Oct. 13, 2017. “California firestorm takes deadly toll on elderly; average age of victims identified so far is 79.” The Los Angeles Times. http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-norcal-fires-elderly-20171012-story.html

[iv] Alene Tchekmedyian and Esmeralda Bermudez. Oct. 13, 2017. “California firestorm takes deadly toll on elderly; average age of victims identified so far is 79.” The Los Angeles Times. http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-norcal-fires-elderly-20171012-story.html

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.