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.  

Live from the National Hurricane Center – Tackling the Prep Paradox

If everything goes as planned, I’ll be at the National Hurricane Center in Miami tomorrow for a Satellite Media Tour with Director Dr. Rick Knabb. We’ll connect live with television, radio and online reporters, editors, correspondents and anchors through satellite link-ups. And they will, in turn, remind their audiences about the need to get ready now for flooding, high winds, hurricanes, and storm surge. We’ll be starting our 20 or so interviews before sunrise, including several segments with The Weather Channel. The “Tour” will last for about four hours.

We use media tours when the weather is quiet as they are a good way to get the public’s attention, but tomorrow should be even more effective because of the recent active tropical weather. Storms like BERTHA, ISELLE, and JULIO get the public’s attention because they showcase a pattern that plays out the same way each time. Those in the expected strike zone, (last week it was Hawaii), join in the frenzied, last-minute rush to the grocery and hardware stores to secure basic necessities while the rest of the world watches to see if they get hit by the hurricane.

This is the paradox that those of us in the disaster safety movement live with: we enjoy people’s rapt attention when storms brew, but often the public focus comes just as the window closes on the opportunity to mitigate storm effects. By the time they believe it can happen to them, it’s often too late to act on beneficial protections like flood insurance.

Somehow, many still don’t realize that nearly all homeowners insurance excludes flood damage, and that flood insurance must be in place 30 days before an incident. Even with our modern hurricane forecasting skills, we do not get a month of lead time before a specific landfall.

I’ve been thinking about this ongoing contradiction. Having people’s attention during a storm or impending disaster can save lives if they heed our program messages such as “Turn Around, Don’t Drown.” However, if they only focus on disaster preparation when trouble is impending, they are likely to suffer unnecessarily.

We know this because for more than three decades, in storm after storm, people have shared their regrets with us after the fact. They regret that lack of planning caused fear and stress for their kids. They regret scrambling for scarce supplies because of procrastination. As they clean up their water-logged homes, they regret that they missed out on simple home protection preps like boarding up, caulking windows, cleaning gutters, trimming overhanging limbs or even changing water runoff patterns in the yard.

They remember for years about how miserable it was to endure a power outage without basics like ice, water, or even peanut butter and jelly, never mind a generator or adequate fuel to run it. And they are surprised and frustrated when they lose power even though they were well outside the storm-impacted area. These regrets are compounded with health and welfare problems when the power goes out in extreme heat like Miami after Hurricane Andrew or winter cold like the Northeast after Superstorm Sandy.

We will never miss an opportunity to leverage the public’s attention with safety and prevention messages when we battle complacency directly ahead of a hurricane. But while the weather is peaceful, we will “tour” via satellite hoping to inspire and quoting Ben Franklin along the way, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

Homes Can Be Built to Better Withstand Most Tornadoes

The nonprofit Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH) released Building Codes: The Foundation for Resilience, its commentary prepared for the BuildStrong 2nd Annual National Thought Leaders Forum: Building Codes for a Stronger and Safer America.  The Forum on Capitol Hill coincided with the annual observance of International Code Council’s Building Safety Month celebration each May.  The commentary examines the American building code system, how a new tornado design philosophy is making it possible to build homes to withstand most tornadoes, and recommendations to strengthen the overall delivery of model building codes, standards and effective enforcement.

“As we join our nation’s leaders to sound the call for resilient communities, we are at a pivotal moment in our history with respect to our system of building codes, standards and practices,” said FLASH President and CEO Leslie Chapman-Henderson.  “Where the system is weak, it is invisible to the public until disaster strikes.  We are certain that when we reach a higher level of building performance, we will not only enhance life safety, but we will begin to mitigate the devastating economic losses that have become all too common when disasters strike.”

Building Safety Month is a public awareness campaign offered each year to help individuals, families and businesses understand what it takes to create and sustain safe and sustainable structures.  The campaign reinforces the need for adoption of modern, model building codes, a strong and efficient system of code enforcement and a well-trained, professional workforce to maintain the system.