Reviewing the 2017 Disaster Season – Hurricane Harvey

 

This is the fourth installment from our new commentary paper, “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.

 Reviewing the 2017 Disaster Season – Hurricane Harvey

As we review the major 2017 disasters, we will comment on the potential presence of the six biases detailed in the Ostrich Paradox.  We will also identify potential strategic options to help overcome same that can increase resilience during the disaster recovery underway from California to the Caribbean.

Our current disaster management system is correctly rooted in the local nature of such events, but the decentralized approach has slowed wider-scale resilience reforms. That said, we believe that, like the volume created by the #HurricaneStrong campaign, the sheer breadth and legacy of last year’s events can help overcome the Build-Destroy-Rebuild cycle.

Here’s why.

Last year, in just under 60 days, the United States experienced the shock of multiple billion-dollar disasters at the total cost of more than $300 billion. The shock isn’t just quantitative, it’s qualitative too. We had epic, some say biblical, flooding; major hurricanes (it’s the first time two Atlantic category 4 U.S. landfalls have occurred in the same year[i]); and the deadliest spate of wildfires in California history.

Many have tried to describe and differentiate it—tipping point, paradigm shift, sea change, new world order. These are all ways to say that natural disasters cannot remain only local concerns that garner momentary national attention. We live in an anytime, all-hazard world, and the only way to adequately protect our communities is to embrace resilience across the board with no exceptions, no seasons, and no compromises.

We must overcome the bias of myopia, or nearsightedness. We need to accept that investing in, and prioritizing, safety isn’t negotiable. It is the obligation of all levels of government to protect its citizens. Moreover, embracing basic safety standards for construction and other disaster preparations saves lives, saves money, and spares communities inevitable decades of disruption.

The following will look to each disaster and explore what we knew, what we learned, and how we can move forward to improve disaster resilience in the future.

Hurricane Harvey

On August 25, 2017, Hurricane Harvey made landfall near Rockport, Texas.[ii] Rockport and the surrounding areas endured a category 4 hurricane, but this was just the beginning. After the devastating wind damage, Harvey generated extraordinary levels of flooding. As of August 31, 2017, an estimated 70 percent of Harris County was flooded by at least 1.5 feet of water, with an estimated 136,000 flooded structures in the county alone. According to Jeff Lindner of Harris County Flood Control District, government personnel completed 60,049 water rescues with an additional estimate of 20,000 to 30,000 performed by civilians.

What We Knew

We understood ahead of time that a direct hit from a category 4 hurricane would cause the type of wind damage that devastated Rockport and Port Aransas because we have had decades of insights from wind science and engineering testing. As a result, we understand how buildings perform or fail in hurricane force winds.

Modern building codes incorporate these insights and high-performing building methods and materials, but Texas does not have a uniformly adopted and enforced system of building codes. That is why the benefits were not uniformly realized. NOAA’s latest damage estimate from Harvey is $125 billion, and engineering investigations will eventually establish the degree of avoidable loss suffered due to the absence of minimum building codes, enforcement, or effective floodplain regulations.

We also knew that catastrophic flooding in Harris County was likely given the rainfall predictions, although Harvey exceeded what was already expected to be an historic event. In fact, the National Hurricane Center found that Harvey was the most significant tropical cyclone rainfall event in U.S. history. [iii] To wit, the highest storm total rainfall report from Harvey was 60.58 inches.[iv] Furthermore, during Harvey, eighteen values over 48 inches were recorded across southeastern Texas.[v] This is one of the rare occasions that using the description of “biblical” flooding levels is not hyperbolic.

We knew that flood insurance market penetration was lacking. In the end, only an estimated one-fifth of Harvey victims were insured for flood risk.[vi]

We knew modern technology could help post-disaster, but we underestimated the potential, as well as the speed of deployment and adaptation.

What We Learned

Technologies deployed in Harvey swiftly evolved and later became tools for those in Irma’s path. One example is “GasBuddy.” The mobile app helped Harvey evacuees identify which gas stations had run out of fuel or lost electricity.[vii]

The expanded version of the app emerged after a run on Texas gas stations post-Harvey convinced the company’s CEO that GasBuddy needed to re-engineer their mobile app overnight to help Irma evacuees from the app’s usual purpose to price gasoline, to also help find available gasoline.[viii] GasBuddy did so quickly, and it was downloaded a total of 1.8 million times between August 26 and September 11.[ix]

Zello, a modernized two-way radio, is an app that uses Wi-Fi or cellular connection to link users around the world.[x] The app was used when Harvey hit Houston to help coordinate search and rescue missions, including by those in the so-called “Cajun Navy”, a group of Louisiana (and Texas) boat owners who conducted search-and-rescue missions.[xi] Zello connects victims and rescuers instantly, allowing both to post voice messages to specific channels.[xii] To gain a better understanding of how Zello was used during Harvey, read the Houston Chronicle’s article, “I downloaded an app. And suddenly, was part of the Cajun Navy.” As Irma headed for Florida, the Zello app took the top spot on Apple’s store.[xiii]

The role of drones in disaster recovery after Harvey, and then Irma, is also noteworthy. Drones, or Unmanned Ariel Vehicles (UAV), are vehicles that fly without an on-board pilot.[xiv] After Harvey’s landfall, drone operators responded to the area to support rescue and recovery efforts.[xv]

After Harvey, the American Red Cross tested the use of drones to speed up damage assessment and recovery.[xvi] Additionally, telecom companies Verizon and AT&T used drones to assess equipment damage, and some insurers have deployed drones to more quickly view and assess damaged areas.[xvii] We are aware of many insurers who used drones to swiftly adjust California wildfire claims as well.

There are still issues to address regarding the use of drones after a disaster for search and recovery. This includes FAA temporary flight restrictions on private drones after Harvey that were criticized as overlooking opportunities to increase rescue and recovery efforts. [xviii]

Another lesson learned from the Harvey experience is that we should reexamine how we communicate risk. A Huffington Post article, “Hurricane Harvey Is Testing Our Ability To Communicate Natural Disaster Risks,” discusses how meteorologists were unsurprised by the extent of Harvey’s destruction, but effectively communicating it to the public was a real challenge.[xix] A risk communication consultant was quoted, “We can describe a burrito and a pizza as ‘epic,’ but when we are trying to describe rainfall as ‘epic,’ and we’re truly meaning this is epic—we’ve never seen anything like this in this country—it’s not necessarily resonating.” [xx]

While Harvey was a catastrophic and historic event, flooding, even on much smaller scales, is a major source of disaster damage. A Pew Charitable Trusts report found that flooding events prompted 73% of federal disaster declarations between 2008 and 2017.[xxi] The report also noted that major flooding in landlocked states was more frequent than flooding along the coasts, as eight of 10 states with the most flood-related disaster declarations were inland states.[xxii]

How We Are Moving Forward

There is mounting evidence that Harvey may have led to a reduction in myopia among the building industry for disaster resilience.[xxiii] The benefits of resilient building, especially for resilience against flooding, may be realized by more in the industry and perhaps homeowners as well.

Harvey has served for many a reminder of the risks of catastrophic flooding, arguably overcoming an amnesia bias for many in other locations in advance of Hurricane Irma and the other storms post-Harvey.

It seems that Texans are now well-aware of their risk of flooding. Still, we can’t discount the influence of a famously independent culture on not evacuating or preparing, even in the face of a high likelihood of disaster. Optimism bias must be considered. And furthermore, this culture of self-reliance and resistance to outside influence feeds a herding bias. But the herd can move in positive ways too.

One developer, The Howard Hughes Corp., recognized the value in elevated homes on pier-and-beam foundations prior to Harvey, and homes in its Woodlands Reserve community, all built on pier-and-beam, were unscathed by the rising floodwaters.[xxiv] Frankel Building Group, the homebuilder for the development, expressed in a 2016 article that they noticed increased demand in the last year for elevated homes.[xxv]

If building codes and floodplain regulations require elevated homes in special flood hazard areas, then it becomes a default. Communities embed safety for their citizens when they make disaster-resilient building codes, including added provisions needed for their location. That overcomes an inertia bias, and it also simplifies what individuals and families need to do to prepare for disaster, in this case flooding, as critical building practices are already mandatory. This makes sense as homeowners have a fair expectation of community leaders to implement policies that make them safe and protect their property. Further, as stated above, homeowners are not typically present when the building standards are chosen or set.

There has been a lot of discussion around Houston’s limited building regulations and what has been called an “unchecked building explosion”, and the role of flood maps and regulations.[xxvi] While Houston is famous for its lack of zoning regulations, we’re more interested in how strong its buildings are required to be built, i.e., their building code, and their floodplain regulations. And not just in cities, but in unincorporated areas too. The unincorporated areas of Harris County have added close to one million people since 2000.[xxvii]

After Harvey, the Harris County Commissioners Court unanimously approved more stringent regulations for development in the floodplain, including requirements for higher elevations, up to 8 feet higher in some areas, and that some new homes use pier-and-beam construction and be built to withstand high winds.[xxviii] Beginning on January 1, 2018, all new buildings must be at least 24 inches above the 500-year floodplain.[xxix] These regulations have been identified as the first major change in Harris County’s floodplain regulations in almost 20 years.[xxx]

Now Houston is following suit. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has championed the effort, and on April 4, 2018 the City Council approved a rule for new homes and other buildings in the city’s 100-year and 500-year floodplain that requires them to be built two feet above ground or above the projected water level in a 500-year flood.[xxxi]

This leadership in Harris County, and now Houston, post-Harvey is part of a larger movement. Resilience-minded leaders from all sectors have been working pre-Harvey to increase the level of U.S. disaster resilience through a continuum of steady, meaningful improvements and innovation. New FEMA policies, legislative initiatives by public-private coalitions, e.g., BuildStrong, and supportive federal legislation incentivize use of modern building codes to spare lives, save homes, and conserve taxpayer money.

Additionally, many new efforts capture the economics of resilience to equip decision-makers with economic data validating investments now to save more later. Examples of the growing body of evidence to demonstrate the value of codes and mitigation includes FEMA’s Loss Avoidance Studies and www.floodeconomics.com by the Economist Intelligence Unit. Additionally, studies like Mitigation Saves 2.0 that demonstrate a $6 to $1 return on mitigation investments are helping make the economic and societal case for resilience.

This type of economic data supports leadership decision-making in favor of sound resilience policies, and it is our hope that Texas Governor Abbot’s “Commission to Rebuild Texas” will evaluate and consider the information as it formulates recommendations and the strategy to not just build back, but build back better as it undertakes recovery from Harvey.

In 2012, we created the Texas State Collaborative (TSC), a private-public collaboration convened to address the most pressing issues affecting the Texas built environment. TSC is a volunteer group of academics, building code officials, consumer advocates, design and building professionals, emergency managers, home builders, leading insurers, meteorologists, nonprofits, product manufacturers, regulators, and government officials.

At the outset of the TSC formation, most agreed that Texas is without a consistent and high-quality building code system across the disaster-prone state, and transparency is lacking. Through the coalition, we performed hyper-local analyses of cities and counties across the state to identify building code presence or absence as well as amendments affecting potential disaster resilience of the structure.

The National Weather Service added hyper-local analyses of weather risks, and we collected the code and weather data into Leadership Toolkits. The Building Officials Association of Texas distributed the toolkits to the jurisdictions, and the inventory is showcased online at www.texasstatecollaborative.org.

The toolkits raise awareness of the top three weather perils in key Texas cities and counties, and they identify residential building code amendments that affect the relative resilience of that jurisdiction in the context of the weather perils present. The toolkits include recommendations and information about ISO’s Building Code Effectiveness Grading Schedule (BCEGS) for the jurisdiction, available mitigation incentives, and frequently asked questions about building codes.

Sharing hyperlocal building code data with the jurisdictions through the lens of disaster safety and resilience brought attention to the issue of disparity between city and county residential building codes. Specifically, counties interpreted Texas law as a barrier to residential building code enforcement authority. As a result, while builders had to have inspections on residential structures in counties that adopted such regulations, they were not required to pass the inspections. It is important to note that this situation only applied to those counties that chose to adopt a residential building code, and many counties do not.

The Texas Legislature learned of this disparity through the TSC education and outreach effort. TSC members with advocacy teams worked with the Legislature, and they enacted H.B. 2040 in 2017 to remedy the situation. As a result, counties now have the authority to require builders to pass inspections, however, the county leaders still must adopt and choose to enforce a building code for this change to improve resilience in Texas counties.

We hope that the members of the “Commission to Rebuild Texas” identify the law change in H.B. 2040 as an opportunity to extend much-needed residential building codes into counties as a critical means to increase Texas’ resilience.

The Harvey experience demonstrated that we must overcome existing biases and much, much more. Changes in technology and the advent of social media platforms have revolutionized how we get information to the public. Disaster preparedness and resilience remain some of the toughest sells for policymakers, however, we remain focused on identifying gaps and educating on the need for proven resilience policies and creative communication tactics as fundamental for success.

[i] Chris Dolce. Sept. 10, 2017. Hurricanes Irma and Harvey Mark the First Time Two Atlantic Category 4 U.S. Landfalls Have Occurred in the Same Year. The Weather Channel. https://weather.com/storms/hurricane/news/hurricane-irma-harvey-landfall-category-4-united-states-history.

[ii] Sept. 2, 2017. “Historic Hurricane Harvey’s Recap.” Weather.com. https://weather.com/storms/hurricane/news/tropical-storm-harvey-forecast-texas-louisiana-arkansas#/!

[iii] Eric S. Blake and David A. Zelinsky. Jan. 23, 2018. National Hurricane Center Tropical Cyclone Report. Hurricane Harvey. National Hurricane Center. https://www.nhc.noaa.gov/data/tcr/AL092017_Harvey.pdf

[iv] Eric S. Blake and David A. Zelinsky. Jan. 23, 2018. National Hurricane Center Tropical Cyclone Report. Hurricane Harvey. National Hurricane Center. https://www.nhc.noaa.gov/data/tcr/AL092017_Harvey.pdf

[v] Eric S. Blake and David A. Zelinsky. Jan. 23, 2018. National Hurricane Center Tropical Cyclone Report. Hurricane Harvey. National Hurricane Center. https://www.nhc.noaa.gov/data/tcr/AL092017_Harvey.pdf

[vi] Ari Blask, Ike Brannon. Sept. 5, 2017. “Hurricane Harvey Proved We Need More Flood Insurance Competition.” Time. http://time.com/4927852/hurricane-harvey-flood-insurance/

[vii] David Wethe. Sept. 12, 2017. “As Florida Fuel Grew Scarce, GasBuddy App Change Filled Gap.” Bloomberg Technology. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-09-12/pizza-fueled-hackathon-helped-gasbuddy-prep-for-hurricane-irma.

[viii] David Wethe. Sept. 12, 2017. “As Florida Fuel Grew Scarce, GasBuddy App Change Filled Gap.” Bloomberg Technology. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-09-12/pizza-fueled-hackathon-helped-gasbuddy-prep-for-hurricane-irma.

[ix] David Wethe. Sept. 12, 2017. “As Florida Fuel Grew Scarce, GasBuddy App Change Filled Gap.” Bloomberg Technology. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-09-12/pizza-fueled-hackathon-helped-gasbuddy-prep-for-hurricane-irma.

[x] Stephanie Mlot. Sept. 11, 2017. “Hurricane Irma Pushes Digital Walkie-Talkie App Zello to No. 1.” Geek.com. https://www.geek.com/tech/hurricane-irma-pushes-digital-walkie-talkie-app-zello-to-no-1-1715552/

[xi] Peter Holley. Sept. 2, 2017. “The Cajun Navy’s secret weapon for saving lives: The human voice.” The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/innovations/wp/2017/08/31/the-cajun-navys-secret-weapon-for-saving-lives-the-human-voice/?utm_term=.aa55d4c40750

[xii] Peter Holley. Sept. 2, 2017. “The Cajun Navy’s secret weapon for saving lives: The human voice.” The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/innovations/wp/2017/08/31/the-cajun-navys-secret-weapon-for-saving-lives-the-human-voice/?utm_term=.aa55d4c40750

[xiii] “Hurricane Irma boosts downloads of walkie-talkie app Zello.” USA Today. https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/talkingtech/2017/09/07/hurricane-irma-boosts-downloads-walkie-talkie-app-zello/640920001/

[xiv] Michael Alba. June 28, 2017. “Drone Age – Rise of the Flying Robots.” Engineering.com. https://www.engineering.com/DesignerEdge/DesignerEdgeArticles/ArticleID/15177/Drone-Age–Rise-of-the-Flying-Robots.aspx

[xv] Melissa Quinn. Sept. 9, 2017. “Harvey forces debate over using drones in disaster recovery.” Washington Examiner. http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/harvey-forces-debate-over-using-drones-in-disaster-recovery/article/2633688

[xvi] Travis Bubenik. Sept. 22, 2017. “After Harvey, the Red Cross tries to speed up relief with drones.” https://www.marketplace.org/2017/09/22/life/after-harvey-red-cross-tries-speed-relief-drones

[xvii] Jennifer Huddleston Skees. Sept. 14, 2017. “4 Ways Technology Helped During Hurricanes Harvey and Irma (and 1 more it could have”. The Technology Liberation Front. https://techliberation.com/2017/09/14/4-ways-technology-helped-during-hurricanes-harvey-and-irma-and-1-more-it-could-have/

[xviii] Melissa Quinn. Sept. 9, 2017. “Harvey forces debate over using drones in disaster recovery.” Washington Examiner. http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/harvey-forces-debate-over-using-drones-in-disaster-recovery/article/2633688

[xix] Chris D’Angelo. Aug. 28, 2017. “Hurricane Harvey Is Testing Our Ability To Communicate Natural Disaster Risks.” Huffington Post. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/hurricane-harvey-communication-weather-disasters_us_59a41f8ae4b0821444c4a4ba

[xx] Chris D’Angelo. Aug. 28, 2017. “Hurricane Harvey Is Testing Our Ability To Communicate Natural Disaster Risks.” Huffington Post. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/hurricane-harvey-communication-weather-disasters_us_59a41f8ae4b0821444c4a4ba

[xxi] Gloria Gonzalez. Jan. 26, 2018. “Floods dominate presidential disaster declarations: Pew.” Business Insurance. http://www.businessinsurance.com/article/20180126/NEWS06/912318779/Floods-dominate-presidential-disaster-declarations-Pew-Charitable-Trusts-report

[xxii] Gloria Gonzalez. Jan. 26, 2018. “Floods dominate presidential disaster declarations: Pew.” Business Insurance. http://www.businessinsurance.com/article/20180126/NEWS06/912318779/Floods-dominate-presidential-disaster-declarations-Pew-Charitable-Trusts-report

[xxiii] http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/columnists/greater-houston/article/Industry-support-for-flood-rules-may-signal-new-12387236.php

[xxiv] Paul Takahasi. Sept. 6, 2017. “These Houston homes didn’t flood during Harvey. Here’s why.” Houston Business Journal. https://www.bizjournals.com/houston/news/2017/09/06/these-houston-homes-didn-t-flood-during-harvey.html

[xxv] Paul Takahasi. Junr 7, 2016. “Homebuilder: Demand for raised homes rise amid Houston floods.” Houston Business Journal. https://www.bizjournals.com/houston/morning_call/2016/06/homebuilder-demand-for-raised-homes-rise-amid.html

[xxvi] 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

[xxvii] Mihir Zaveri. Dec. 5, 2017. “Harris County Oks stricter development rules aimed at reducing flooding.” Houston Chronicle. http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/politics/houston/article/County-OKs-stricter-development-rules-aimed-at-12408266.php.

[xxviii] Mihir Zaveri. Dec. 5, 2017. “Harris County Oks stricter development rules aimed at reducing flooding.” Houston Chronicle. http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/politics/houston/article/County-OKs-stricter-development-rules-aimed-at-12408266.php.

[xxix] Brien Straw. Dec. 5, 2017. “Ed Emmet: Harris County Has Nation’s Toughest Floodplain Development Regulations.” Houston Public Media. https://www.houstonpublicmedia.org/articles/news/2017/12/05/254510/ed-emmitt-harris-county-has-nations-toughest-floodplain-development-regulations/.

[xxx] Juan A. Lozano. Dec. 5, 2017. “Texas county approves post-Harvey flood construction rules.” San Francisco Chronicle, http://www.sfchronicle.com/news/texas/article/Texas-county-approves-new-building-regulations-12407533.php

[xxxi] Juan A. Lozano. April 4, 2018. “Houston Approves New Post-Harvey Flood Construction Rule.” Associated Press. https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/texas/articles/2018-04-04/houston-approves-new-post-harvey-flood-construction-rule.

FLASH urges Governor Scott to Veto HB 1021 to Save Florida’s Building Codes

May 31, 2017

Dear Governor Scott:

I am writing to express our opposition to the provisions affecting the Florida Building Code system in House Bill 1021, and to humbly request that you veto the bill in the interests of safety and the economic preservation of Florida’s communities.

The current Florida Building Code is considered by many to be one of the strongest, if not the strongest, building codes in the United States. As well it should be. The entire state of Florida is susceptible to an array of potentially devastating perils including hurricanes, tropical storms, flooding, wildfire, and hail to name a few. Accordingly, Floridians need homes that perform when tested by Mother Nature.1992andrew1

The existing Florida Building Code consists of model building codes as the foundation or starting point upon which Florida-specific amendments are then made. This ensures that Florida keeps pace with the most up-to-date building code provisions while preserving the ability to make amendments. The International Codes created by the International Code Council are among these model codes and are created through a consensus-based process that meets national standards, costing approximately $9 million annually.

House Bill 1021 eliminates the requirement to update the Florida Building Code every three years using model building codes and instead proposes that the Florida Building Commission review the model codes for changes one at a time. House Bill 1021 does not consider that the entire model code system assumes regular updates to incorporate new knowledge in building science and technology.

This proposed approach undermines an established process to benefit special interests without adequate means to ensure minimum safety standards are met. It 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. House Bill 1021 is a radical departure from the research-driven efforts to make building occupants safe at work, home, and play.

Please allow me to outline details of our position.

Lack of Public Benefit

Proponents have not defined a compelling public benefit to this bill. We believe this alone is adequate to justify a veto and avoid putting our citizenry at risk. House Bill 1021 will set Florida and our citizens on a path to weaker buildings and more expensive public and private insurance as the changes will foster certain degradation of our nationally-recognized building code system. This high public cost would be paid by Florida citizens to benefit only a small segment of one private interest group: the homebuilding industry.

Proponents suggest that they are overburdened with changes borne of regular three-year model code updates. However, we suggest that construction of a home requires that the utmost care be taken to stay current with academic research, scientific insights, and post-disaster engineering revelations. This is only possible on a steady and efficient basis through a systematic incorporation of the latest model codes that are the minimum life safety standards for construction.

For most families, the home is their largest investment and one that they expect will last. Preservation of the building code system that is in place ensures construction with durability, energy-efficiency, strength, and sustainability in mind. Indeed, a Wharton study last year of the Florida Building Code cited a $4.8 to $1 return on investment value.

No private interest should be allowed to take away this beneficial protection.

Economic Impact

Maintaining a healthy financial services industry environment is essential for the economic well-being and growth of our state. The current building code system with regular updates using model building codes provides the certainty that actuaries, analysts, insurers, modelers, rating agencies, and others rely upon when generating scores and other pricing factors for insurance as well as bonds and other financial products.

Removal of the assumption of complete, regular updates to our building codes using nationally-recognized and accepted model codes will remove the certainty that helps Florida earn the most favorable building code ratings. This is the essence of how House Bill 1021 will negatively impact budgets for Florida businesses and families.

Here are examples of how the new, uncertain, proposed system can impact Florida.

Private Property Insurance – Florida property owners receive an automatic “building code credit” for homes constructed after 2001. Credits can range up to 68% on the wind portion of the regular policy and the wind portion can be up to 50% or greater. This financial incentive is material to the annual cost of insurance and helps offset the high cost of living in our hurricane-prone state. For example, a Miami-Dade homeowner may pay $8,000 annually for insurance with the wind portion averaging 50% or $4,000. Applying the automatic Florida Building Code credit at 50% would put $2,000 in savings back in the family budget each year. This not only drives insurance affordability, but home ownership affordability overall.

This credit will likely be preserved for homes built after 2001, but the homes built one year, two years, or years beyond today can be affected adversely. Here’s why: while House Bill 1021 attempts to maintain the current wind provisions of the existing model code, the very locking of those provisions also blocks adoption of future innovations in high-wind construction. Conversely, the current system allows for continuous improvement in how we build through mandatory updates while the proposed system only guarantees “review” of potential changes one at a time. The system proposed in House Bill 1021 will undermine confidence and insurers may have a legitimate basis for reduction or eventual removal of the automatic Florida Building Code credit. Furthermore, once a wind event occurs, data will be available to prove the inferior performance of homes built under the new system. And once the data is in hand, the case for increased consumer cost through loss of credits will be difficult to overcome.

Florida’s recent experience with wildfires raises another scenario that demonstrates the importance of current building codes that are subject to continuous improvement through model code adoption. Nearly every disaster brings affirmation of successful building practices as well as identification of innovation opportunities. Those findings are built into future versions of model codes as the most reliable vehicle for incorporation of timely insights, engineering findings, new science, and innovation.

Under the current system, any insights would be assumed to be automatically incorporated into the Florida Building Code. Under the proposed system, each insight would be subject to either rejection, slower adoption, or incomplete incorporation.

Public Insurance/Flood Insurance – The Florida Floodplain Managers Association performed a detailed economic impact analysis of the original proposed legislation, Senate Bill 7000, and outlined the annual economic cost to Florida families who buy flood insurance. Because of the certainty of downgraded future Building Code Effectiveness Grading Schedule scores and ensuing reduced Community Rating Systems credit points, they project approximately $60 million in annual flood insurance discounts would be forfeited under the proposed system. Miami-Dade residents who buy flood insurance would lose $9.8 million in savings each year. Pinellas County residents would lose $7.8 million.

Why knowingly make flood insurance more expensive?

It is important to look to Florida’s history as we consider House Bill 1021. The current building code system came into existence after our state paid the price of construction growth without a reliable, certain system of building code adoption and enforcement. Florida’s families and businesses shouldered billion-dollar penalties for two decades of poor practices that led to systematic building failures during Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Ironically, it has taken almost two decades to recover. Further, some would assert that while our insurance availability is healed, private property insurance affordability is still a challenge in our state.

Is it wise to weaken Florida’s attractiveness to those placing their capital and confidence here?

Lack of Efficacy

House Bill 1021 includes language that states that the Florida Building Commission will take affirmative steps to use all updates necessary to maintain eligibility for FEMA disaster relief dollars. However, new and proposed FEMA policies complicate the means of maintaining eligibility.

Reliance on model codes is explicit in FEMA’s Disaster Risk Reduction Minimum Codes and Standards (FEMA Policy 204-078-2) and Public Assistance Required Minimum Standards Policy (FEMA Recovery Policy FP-104-009-4). Additionally, the proposed Deductible for FEMA’s Public Assistance Program includes potential credits toward the deductible requirement through actions such as adopting standardized and enhanced building codes. House Bill 1021 could jeopardize Florida’s eligibility for federal aid in several respects.

Does House Bill 1021 require a new and separate process to attempt to meet FEMA requirements, an additional burden and complication? It seems that it does. Why not just adopt the model code and avoid wasting resources, time, and potentially post-disaster funds for Florida?

Ironically, the proponents of House Bill 1021 assert that the code adoption process today is unwieldy and bureaucratic. How does the new proposed system change anything if a comprehensive review, without the structure and consensus-based model code provisions to guide the process, is still necessary?

The Florida Building Commission lacks timely access to building science innovation, sufficient personnel, and adequate resources to approximate the national model code development process, and the bill does not provide resources to overcome this challenge.

As a result, Florida’s building code system will fall behind.

Conclusion

We oppose this harmful legislation as it takes Florida backward to an inferior system that will leave families and communities at unnecessary physical and financial risk. Decades of 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. The system we have had since the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew relies on the accepted, consensus-based standards, while still permitting Florida-specific changes.

Our national organization was founded in Florida 19 years ago to help advance disaster resilience. Since that time, Florida has created a world class, nationally-recognized building code system to ensure the safety and prosperity of its citizens. There are no shortcuts to safe construction, and it is our sincere hope that you will veto House Bill 1021 to preserve our progress and protect our future.

Respectfully submitted,

Leslie Chapman-Henderson

President/CEO

The Case for Preserving Florida’s Building Code System

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.

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.

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.

It’s 2015: Let’s Resolve to Be Resilient

CRAIG

When I sat down to craft a list of New Year’s “resilience” resolutions, I started by thinking about leaders who embody the meaning of the word resolute: “admirably purposeful, determined, and unwavering.”

And I immediately thought of FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate.

If you know him, you know why. Craig’s style flows from a rare combination of an authentic, no-nonsense nature and an intense and extraordinary record of experience before, during, and after disasters of all kinds.

FLASH served on the State Emergency Response Team, and worked with Craig during 2004 and 2005 when the infamous succession of seven deadly hurricanes crisscrossed Florida. He was a constant presence beside then-Governor Jeb Bush in the dozens of news conferences—answering questions, reassuring Floridians, and signaling strength during a time of fear and uncertainty.

His biography on www.fema.gov tells it best.

… He served as Director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management (FDEM) and as the Florida State Coordinating Officer for 11 Presidentially-declared disasters including the management of $4.5 billion in federal disaster assistance. In 2004, he managed the largest federal disaster response in Florida history as four major hurricanes impacted the state in quick succession; Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne. In 2005, Florida was again impacted by major disasters when three more hurricanes made landfall in the state; Dennis, Katrina and Wilma. The impact from Hurricane Katrina was felt more strongly in the gulf coast states to the west but under the Emergency Management Assistance Compact or EMAC, Florida launched the largest mutual aid response in its history in support of those states.

In late 2006, we were asked to design a new Florida public outreach program for all hazard preparedness. Our first step was to conduct a broad-based research effort to identify optimal risk communication strategies, including asking Floridians which disaster-safety messages got through to them, which confused them, and which they liked or disliked.

Repeatedly, a theme emerged in the focus groups, and it didn’t take us long to realize that people were talking about Craig. I remember a woman from Ocala said, “There’s this one guy – I don’t know who he is, but when he comes on with the governor, I just feel better. He is large and in charge.”

Exactly.

In city after city, the research confirmed what those of us who know Craig had long figured out. People trust him because he is candid and willing to tell it like it is. He speaks plain truth—even when it’s unpopular. And in the uncompromising business of managing disasters, that’s the only real way to get anything done.

We were honored to have Craig serve as our closing keynote speaker during our recent 2014 Annual Conference. He posed this question that was shaped in his discussions with President Barack Obama about how we confront disasters, “Are we building to the future or are we building upon past knowledge?”

So, while I’ll resist calling my resolutions “Craig’s List,” I want to thank him for inspiring me to take what started as a list down to just one overriding resolution on how we can build a more resilient future in 2015 and beyond.

We have to tell it like it is if we’re ever going to break our nation’s deadly and costly cycle of “Build-Destroy-Rebuild”.

Homes can be affordably built in a way that is durable, sustainable, and disaster-resilient; however, consumers, renters, residents, and homeowners are typically not present at the time of decision-making to ensure that they are. The most important influencers in the quality of new construction are local officials, developers, and homebuilders.

The answer? It’s nonnegotiable—homes must be built using modern, model building codes and beyond-code resilient building practices. Leaders who fail to adopt and enforce the right codes expose their communities to avoidable risk by trading off long-term resilience for short-term priorities.

The disaster safety movement should take a zero tolerance stance regarding leaders who fail their constituents on building code adoption and enforcement.

In nearly every case, when people and communities fare well in disasters, it is because they took action before disaster strikes, but when people die and buildings fail, the inverse is true. In the past, for understandable reasons, we collectively have had a hard time of saying so.

It’s easier to talk about survival as luck, but we know better, and we need to say so when it counts the most—even when it’s unpopular.

Sustain and Bounceback: Spreading the Word about Natural Disaster Resiliency to the Florida League of Mayors

Resiliency Rating. Sustainability Score. The Bounceback Factor.

We don’t know what it will be called yet. However, when I explained how such a score might affect a city’s ability to attract new residents and new businesses, the mayors at the Florida League of Mayors roundtable listened intently.

They got it. Resiliency ratings for homes, schools, buildings, cities, and towns are coming. With backing from groups ranging from the federal government to nonprofits like the Rockefeller Foundation, some of America’s best policy and science minds are tackling the question of how to measure community resilience.

Those assembled at the roundtable in Broward County last week included mayors of cities large and small from Ft. Myers and Pensacola, to Palm Beach County’s Greenacres. They understood what we have been saying for years: Disaster preparedness and response are essential, but proficiency after the fact is not enough. Local leaders must get out in front of disasters before they physically and fiscally overwhelm cities and towns. To do so, we have to build and design structures, utilities, and transportation in ways that not only resist disaster, but recover quickly.

For example, it’s not enough for FedEx in Memphis to have its own emergency plans. The company depends on public roadways to keep its trucks moving. And it’s the same for companies around the nation. In Moore, Oklahoma, Mayor Glenn Lewis, who helped see his city through devastating tornadoes, spearheaded adoption of unprecedented 135 mph high-wind building codes to keep residents safe and to reassure businesses who are counting on Moore’s future viability.

The mayors know that their cities are already rated for cleanliness, friendliness, walkability, business incentives, culture, commuting times, school systems, entertainment, and even light pollution. But after Superstorm Sandy leveled parts of New Jersey and New York, residents and businesses across the U.S. and globe are asking for more. They want to know about a city’s ability to withstand flooding, hurricanes, rising sea levels, tornadoes, wildfires, and earthquakes. People and businesses are mobile. They have options when choosing a place to live or do business, and they want the ability to make informed decisions.

To make resiliency scores meaningful, we will have to look deeply into building codes and how we build as the cornerstone of community resilience. We need to ask the right questions. Are minimum codes good enough? Are cities adopting the latest model codes on time? Are they investing in enforcement through adequate staffing and professional training? The Insurance Services Offices (ISO) already rates municipalities through the Building Code Effectiveness Grading Scale (BCEGS). That rating should be the first factor built into resilience ratings.

We are a society of scorekeepers. We evaluate things based on rankings from NCAA football and Facebook “likes” to our own cholesterol levels. People email us and call us every day to ask if their homes will survive the disasters to come, and we don’t have a tidy way to answer the question. But someday soon, we’ll be able to share their community resiliency score. And after meeting with the Florida mayors last week, I am convinced that these local officials will be leading the way.