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.  

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.”