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.

2013 FLASH Annual Conference Highlights

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This past November, more than 165 leaders came together to advance the cause of mitigation and resilience at the 2013 FLASH Annual Conference – Mitigation 360°. Presenters and topics include Florida Emergency Management Director Bryan Koon, a virtual town hall meeting with Mike Holmes of Holmes on Homes, National Hurricane Center Directors past and present Max Mayfield, Bill Read and Dr. Rick Knabb, veteran journalists like Jim Cantore, interview panels, multi-media presentations and more.  Take a look at highlights from the event below and visit the conference website, http://www.flashannualconference.org to review the full conference report and session videos.  Be sure to mark your calendar now for the 2014 FLASH Annual Conference – Resilience Revolution November 19-21 at the Wyndham Grand Orlando Bonnet Creek in Orlando.  We hope to see you there.

United Nations World Habitat Day 2013

LCH UN

On Friday, October 4, I was honored to join a distinguished panel of speakers to discuss “Resilient Design for Sustainable Urbanization” at the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York. The panel brought together high-level experts on natural disasters to help identify resilient design challenges and opportunities for national thought leaders and policymakers, and share their best practices and innovative, replicable ideas. The event, hosted by the UN’s Economic and Social Council, precedes World Habitat Day 2013 on October 7, when cities around the world will celebrate by organizing events addressing Sustainable Urban Mobility. View the United Nations broadcast or download the prepared statement.