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.