Reviewing the 2017 Disaster Season – Hurricane Irma

This is the fifth installment of posts that make up our new commentary paper entitled, “Learning from the 2017 Disasters to Create a Reliably Resilient U.S.” The full commentary will be shared on June 1 to mark the beginning of the 2018 hurricane season.

Irma made initial landfall in the Florida Keys on September 10, and then moved north up Florida’s Gulf Coast. Models showed that the storm was headed directly for Miami but it took a turn to the west that helped it avoid a direct hit.[i] Irma was almost as large as the state of Texas, and both Florida coasts felt hurricane-force winds.[ii] Irma destroyed an estimated 95% of buildings in parts of St. Martin, and devastated parts of St. Barts and the Virgin Islands.[iii] The Florida Keys and the southwestern Florida coastline experienced damage, and flooding occurred in already oversaturated parts of Florida and southern Georgia.[iv] Irma’s eyewall passed north of Puerto Rico knocking out power in an eerie foreshadowing of the direct hit by Maria later the same month.

Irma had a widespread impact on the power grid, resulting in 16 million people across the southeastern U.S., mostly in Florida, losing power.[v]

What We Knew

We knew the need to prepare for power outages, including the critical messages surrounding safe operation of generators to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. Tragically, carbon monoxide deaths occurred, and deaths from heat exhaustion occurred as well. The most shocking cases included the deaths of twelve residents of a South Florida nursing home located across the street from a hospital.

We knew that homes in Florida could be subjected to hurricane winds, even inland. In 2004, Hurricane Charley cut across the middle of the state to wreak havoc on Central Florida, toppling 10,000 trees in Orlando alone. However, Irma was unique in how it covered the state in forecast projections. The omnipresent storm threat made it extremely difficult for families to make evacuation judgments and plan their routes, especially as the forecast track shifted.

Regardless of the typical difficultly brought by a shifting track, evacuation in areas subject to storm surge should be automatic, no questions asked. “Run from the water” is the adage. Anticipating wind damage makes the evacuation calculus a little trickier.

During Irma, many families were unsure if their home was strong enough to endure the potential category 3, 4, or 5 storm. Those with homes built since the new Florida Building Code, March 2002 and after, were more confident. However, forecasters have a difficult time pinpointing the exact location where a hurricane will make landfall until it is generally too late to evacuate. Further, many people do not know when their home was built or to what standard. We believe this was part of why thousands of Floridians evacuated. And, as the entire state was in the shadow of the potential Irma landfall, most headed north and found themselves in heavy traffic.

Charley, Irma, and many other hurricanes have repeatedly proven that storms can affect any area of Florida. That is why we believe that all Florida homes should be built to withstand hurricanes. Imagine the confidence and ease that thousands of families would have enjoyed if they knew, with certainty, how their home would perform under high-wind conditions. Moreover, imagine the reduction in community upheaval that the confident, in situ population would enjoy.

The current Florida Building Code is strong, and it appears that buildings built to meet the Florida Building Code performed well. The Florida Keys may have experienced a test of the code by experiencing nearly the design level (the highest wind speeds that the building code is designed to withstand), but most of Florida did not experience design-level wind speeds.

Nonetheless, newer homes performed better as they were without the roof degradation caused by the Florida sun and heat, and the materials were less worn overall.

This makes the building code story in Florida very ironic. The newspapers celebrated the strong homes that survived, crediting the strong Florida building codes. Fast-forward five years or more, and this success may not be replicated due to the legislative change made in 2017 and described in our post on May 1 entitled, The Build-Destroy-Rebuild Barrier to Resilience. Florida is now statutorily-destined to steadfastly fall behind and miss out on innovations that could help lessen damage in years to come.

This policy outcome was a clear case of myopia. The short-sighted focus on the minor administrative costs of maintaining an updated building code won out against the long-term safety benefits. And amnesia. Florida had gone a long time without experiencing a severe hurricane threat.

Irma brought devastation to the Florida Keys, but we cannot forget the devastation Irma brought to the Caribbean.[vi] These outcomes should serve as a reminder to the rest of Florida and the U.S., that Irma’s impact could have been so much worse if early predictive models had come to fruition.

How We Are Moving Forward

Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Irma in 2017 had the potential to bring wide scale, utter devastation to Florida. Fortunately, neither storm lived up to its full forecast potential, even though there were disastrous and catastrophic impacts for many who suffered death, injury, anxiety, fear, flooding, damaging winds, and power outages.

As such, we must work harder and more creatively to convey the risk at any level to individuals, families, businesses, and leaders while we simultaneously convey the simple and economical things that can be done to protect both people and buildings.

As discussed in the last blog post about Hurricane Harvey, the most powerful and economical thing to do to protect people and buildings is to adopt minimum building standards through use of a modern building code. Minimum codes should be uniformly in place in every community as they deliver premier consumer protection against natural disasters losses and a means to ensure everyday safety and durability as well.

Transparency is one of the strongest tools for improved consumer fairness. We believe that is exactly what is needed in the building code policy arena. In an earlier blog, we referenced survey findings that identified a gap between consumer understanding of building performance in disasters and building codes. In the same survey, we also identified high consumer expectations of builders and leaders regarding disaster resilience. What this tells us is that while consumers may not always understand the direct correlation between building codes and improved building performance in disasters, they do have a strong expectation of their leaders to keep them safe. Perhaps we can close the gap between consumer expectations and resilience policy leadership by adding these insights to the growing body of powerful economic studies that demonstrate the return on investment of mitigation.

Many local leaders already understand their community’s expectations as well as the economic case, and some are acting by preventing further degradation of sound building code policies.

In 2018, while Florida leaders did not reverse the negative building code legislation that weakened the system in 2017, they did reject H.B. 299, a measure proposed by the homebuilding industry that would have weakened the quality and integrity of the Florida Building Commission. The unsuccessful measure proposed to shrink the body by eliminating many of the seats for relevant specialty professions that currently serve.

Additionally, the Florida Legislature passed legislation requiring every nursing home and assisted living facility in Florida to have emergency generators.[vii]

In the Florida Keys where Irma’s high winds did the most damage, local leaders in Monroe County have pushed for a new regulation to require all roofs be constructed using wind-resistant metal. The Monroe County Board of County Commissioners discussed this issue during its January 17, 2018 meeting.

Another positive trend is that flood insurance sales are increasing and private flood insurance offerings are growing, albeit at a very modest pace. This is only possible due to law changes that allow for private companies to participate.

Perhaps the best model of resilience leadership is in North Florida where Leon County experienced damage and extensive power outages from Hurricane Hermine in 2016. In 2017, the North Florida county (my home) was briefly predicted to endure a direct hit from Hurricane Irma.

Following those experiences, Leon County Government leaders identified the desire to advance resilience and partnered with FLASH to explore available programs and initiatives to accomplish same. Through the collaboration, we identified the opportunity to prototype a #HurricaneStrong community by benchmarking against existing, objective and subjective criteria of various resilience elements, including the following:

  • Engaged Leadership (Elected Officials, Staff)
  • Current, model building codes adopted/enforced
  • Excellent BCEGS rating (1-4)
  • Excellent Floodplain Management/CRS Rating
  • Widespread Community Awareness/Outreach (multiple programs)
  • NOAA/NWS StormReady Designation
  • Resilient Businesses/Organizations – Completion of the FEMA/FLASH Ready Business Workshops and protocols
  • Resilient School Systems

Through the initiative, Leon County Government has expanded public outreach programming, invested in the Ready Business workshop effort, and is serving as an ambassador to other communities to raise awareness and provide support to engage community leaders across the state and country.

We announced this initiative in March at the National Hurricane Conference, and nearly a dozen additional communities came forward to pursue the honorary designation. We see this as another positive indication of leadership intentions regarding resilience, and we look forward to highlighting these leaders and sharing the news as the next #HurricaneStrong communities come online.

[i] Kevin Loria and Dave Mosher. Sept. 11, 2017. “Irma is finally leaving Florida and now hammering Georgia – here’s the latest.” Business Insider.

[ii] Kevin Loria and Dave Mosher. Sept. 11, 2017. “Irma is finally leaving Florida and now hammering Georgia – here’s the latest.” Business Insider.

[iii] Kevin Loria and Dave Mosher. Sept. 11, 2017. “Irma is finally leaving Florida and now hammering Georgia – here’s the latest.” Business Insider.

[iv] Lori Rozsa. Sept. 15, 2017. “In north Florida, Hurricane Irma made tranquil waters angry and dangerous.” The Washington Post.

[v] Joel Achenbach, et al. Sept. 17, 2017. “Hurricanes Harvey and Irma offer sobering lessons in the power of nature.” The Washington Post.

[vi] Sept. 7, 2017. “Hurricane Irma wreaks apocalyptic damage in the Caribbean.” The Washington Post.

[vii] Mar. 26, 2018. “Gov. Scott Signs Legislation Requiring Emergency Generators at All Florida Nursing Homes and Assisted Living Facilities.”

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 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

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.

[ii] Sept. 2, 2017. “Historic Hurricane Harvey’s Recap.”!

[iii] Eric S. Blake and David A. Zelinsky. Jan. 23, 2018. National Hurricane Center Tropical Cyclone Report. Hurricane Harvey. National Hurricane Center.

[iv] Eric S. Blake and David A. Zelinsky. Jan. 23, 2018. National Hurricane Center Tropical Cyclone Report. Hurricane Harvey. National Hurricane Center.

[v] Eric S. Blake and David A. Zelinsky. Jan. 23, 2018. National Hurricane Center Tropical Cyclone Report. Hurricane Harvey. National Hurricane Center.

[vi] Ari Blask, Ike Brannon. Sept. 5, 2017. “Hurricane Harvey Proved We Need More Flood Insurance Competition.” Time.

[vii] David Wethe. Sept. 12, 2017. “As Florida Fuel Grew Scarce, GasBuddy App Change Filled Gap.” Bloomberg Technology.

[viii] David Wethe. Sept. 12, 2017. “As Florida Fuel Grew Scarce, GasBuddy App Change Filled Gap.” Bloomberg Technology.

[ix] David Wethe. Sept. 12, 2017. “As Florida Fuel Grew Scarce, GasBuddy App Change Filled Gap.” Bloomberg Technology.

[x] Stephanie Mlot. Sept. 11, 2017. “Hurricane Irma Pushes Digital Walkie-Talkie App Zello to No. 1.”

[xi] Peter Holley. Sept. 2, 2017. “The Cajun Navy’s secret weapon for saving lives: The human voice.” The Washington Post.

[xii] Peter Holley. Sept. 2, 2017. “The Cajun Navy’s secret weapon for saving lives: The human voice.” The Washington Post.

[xiii] “Hurricane Irma boosts downloads of walkie-talkie app Zello.” USA Today.

[xiv] Michael Alba. June 28, 2017. “Drone Age – Rise of the Flying Robots.”–Rise-of-the-Flying-Robots.aspx

[xv] Melissa Quinn. Sept. 9, 2017. “Harvey forces debate over using drones in disaster recovery.” Washington Examiner.

[xvi] Travis Bubenik. Sept. 22, 2017. “After Harvey, the Red Cross tries to speed up relief with 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.

[xviii] Melissa Quinn. Sept. 9, 2017. “Harvey forces debate over using drones in disaster recovery.” Washington Examiner.

[xix] Chris D’Angelo. Aug. 28, 2017. “Hurricane Harvey Is Testing Our Ability To Communicate Natural Disaster Risks.” Huffington Post.

[xx] Chris D’Angelo. Aug. 28, 2017. “Hurricane Harvey Is Testing Our Ability To Communicate Natural Disaster Risks.” Huffington Post.

[xxi] Gloria Gonzalez. Jan. 26, 2018. “Floods dominate presidential disaster declarations: Pew.” Business Insurance.

[xxii] Gloria Gonzalez. Jan. 26, 2018. “Floods dominate presidential disaster declarations: Pew.” Business Insurance.


[xxiv] Paul Takahasi. Sept. 6, 2017. “These Houston homes didn’t flood during Harvey. Here’s why.” Houston Business Journal.

[xxv] Paul Takahasi. Junr 7, 2016. “Homebuilder: Demand for raised homes rise amid Houston floods.” Houston Business Journal.

[xxvi] Joel Achenbach, et al. Sept. 17, 2017. “Hurricanes Harvey and Irma offer sobering lessons in the power of nature.” The Washington Post.

[xxvii] Mihir Zaveri. Dec. 5, 2017. “Harris County Oks stricter development rules aimed at reducing flooding.” Houston Chronicle.

[xxviii] Mihir Zaveri. Dec. 5, 2017. “Harris County Oks stricter development rules aimed at reducing flooding.” Houston Chronicle.

[xxix] Brien Straw. Dec. 5, 2017. “Ed Emmet: Harris County Has Nation’s Toughest Floodplain Development Regulations.” Houston Public Media.

[xxx] Juan A. Lozano. Dec. 5, 2017. “Texas county approves post-Harvey flood construction rules.” San Francisco Chronicle,

[xxxi] Juan A. Lozano. April 4, 2018. “Houston Approves New Post-Harvey Flood Construction Rule.” Associated Press.

Human Biases – Barriers or Boosts to Resilience?

Businessman with his head in the sand

This is the third installment from our new commentary, “Learning from the 2017 Disasters to Create a Reliably Resilient U.S.” In this discussion, we apply risk communication insights to understand biases that block progress in the disaster safety movement.


What can explain the above cases where facts and experience clearly show that we need to change how we prepare to respond, survive, and recover from disaster, yet resilience policy isn’t embraced? Is there a more effective way to communicate risk and support the behaviors that drive resilience? Through the cross-disciplinary body of literature and research on disaster resilience and social science, a powerful insight is provided by an examination of the role of biases.

In 2017, The Ostrich Paradox by Robert Meyer and Howard Kunreuther[i] identified six core biases that affect disaster preparedness. We applaud the authors for their clear presentation of the information, and we suggest it can serve as a powerful risk communication primer. The authors provide information about the biases, insight on how to conduct a behavioral risk audit to understand the psychological biases that inhibit adoption, and then propose policies that work with, not against, natural psychologies.

Here are the six core biases identified in The Ostrich Paradox alongside the suggested approaches the authors offer to overcome same:

  1. Myopia: a tendency to focus on overly short future time horizons when appraising immediate costs and the potential benefits of protective investments;
    • Remedy: tactics and incentives that lower the short-term costs of preparation
  2. Amnesia: a tendency to base decisions on most recent experiences, overlooking lessons of the past
    • Remedy: communication tactics that correct distorted memories of the past
  3. Optimism: a tendency to underestimate the likelihood of personal harm
    • Remedy: communication tactics that enhance beliefs about hazard likelihoods and impacts
  4. Inertia: a tendency to maintain the status quo or adopt a default option when there is uncertainty about the potential benefits of investing in alternative protective measures;
    • Remedy: policies that make safer actions the default in each setting
  5. Simplification: a tendency to process only limited subsets of information
    • Remedy: policies that simplify the set of preparedness choices faced by individuals
  6. Herding: a tendency to make decisions by social imitation.
    • Remedy: tactics designed to foster stronger social norms of safety

The authors make a compelling case for factors to consider in communicating with the public in harm’s way. Their approach resonated with us particularly well as our nonprofit organization was formed twenty years ago to drive a “social value” for disaster safety. Our strategies and tactics confront and leverage the bias they label “herding.” Others label it “milling.” In our efforts, we call it “social norming”.

Prior to the return of frequent, land-falling major hurricanes striking the U.S. in 2016, raising public awareness and promoting leadership action on hurricane preparedness and mitigation policy was becoming difficult. Some states decided to skip building code update cycles, and others defunded public awareness programs. Many retailers stopped hosting hurricane expositions, and the consensus inside stakeholder circles was that “Hurricane Amnesia” had set in.

To address the problem, FLASH brought together representatives from academia, big data organizations, broadcast meteorology, FEMA, NOAA, insurance companies, product manufacturers, news organizations, and risk communication groups to identify potential solutions. Together, we created the “National Hurricane Resilience Initiative” as an open-source, umbrella effort to align messaging and timing and get everyone on the “same page” with five common, key messages to promote and elevate hurricane resilience.

  • Personal Safety – Know your evacuation zone
  • Financial Security – Have an insurance check-up
  • Family Preparedness – Build a disaster supply kit
  • Damage Prevention – Strengthen your home
  • Community Service – Help your neighbor

The timing alignment included moving the annual NOAA Hurricane Awareness Tour (HAT) to line up with the White House declaration of “National Hurricane Preparedness Week.” The initiative also included creation of a new national event and social media campaign entitled #HurricaneStrong.

Now in its third year, the campaign has reached millions, including governors, mayors, corporate leaders, celebrities, and citizens. Through participation, they learned that to be #HurricaneStrong, you must start with the five key steps listed above.

Since the launch in May of 2016, the #HurricaneStrong campaign has created a simple, common language and “call to arms” to drive buy-in. It has drawn tens of thousands of leaders and citizens to events and reached millions more through traditional news and social media outreach.

The initiative inspired The Weather Channel to sign on as the national media partner and offer free Public Service Announcements aired during prime hurricane season slots. One home improvement store offered workshops in 700 stores, simultaneously, on a single day during the official “week,” and it successfully ignited creative spinoff volunteer events from San Antonio to Norfolk at Walmart stores, minor league baseball games, festivals, and more.

Our experience shows that organizing our collective messaging “act” is only the first step of many more that we need to take to get ahead of the audience’s needs.

Editor’s Note: Our fourth installment will present a detailed review of the 2017 disasters with insights on early actions taken to break the cycle and build back better. We look forward to your comments and input on this critical topic.

[i] Robert Meyer and Howard Kunreuther. 2017. The Ostrich Paradox: Why We Underprepare for Disasters. The Wharton School. University of Pennsylvania. Wharton Digital Press.   

The “Build-Destroy-Rebuild” Barrier to Resilience

Break the Cycle

This is the second installment from our new commentary, “Learning from the 2017 Disasters to Create a Reliably Resilient U.S.” In this discussion, we explore cases where the barriers to rebuilding resiliently overcome the best post-disaster intentions.

By now, it is well established that 2017 was a year for the disaster record-books. The 2017 hurricane season delivered 17 named storms, with 10 forming hurricanes.[i] For the first time in recorded history, three category 4 hurricanes hit the U.S.[ii] Harvey set a new tropical rainfall record with over 60 inches in Texas.[iii] Irma maintained a record-breaking category 5 strength for 37 hours.[iv] The 2017 California wildfires were the deadliest wildfire disaster in state history.[v] Even Ireland had a hurricane.

The 2017 Tubbs, Atlas, and Thomas fires in central and southern California each exceeded $1 billion in losses.[vi] Insurance claims from 2017 California wildfires have reached $11.8 billion, the most expensive series of wildfires in California history.[vii] Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria caused approximately $265 billion in damage, with each hurricane joining Katrina and Sandy as the new top five costliest U.S. hurricanes on record. [viii]

This is just a portion of the destruction. According to NOAA, the 2017 total loss picture for all weather and climate disasters exceeded $300 billion, making it the costliest disaster year in modern history.

So, what are our opportunities to address the rising costs of disasters?

First, it is important to understand America’s natural disaster policy history and the repeating pattern we have observed. This pattern is a reoccurring cycle with little divergence. Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires happen causing catastrophic loss of life and property. Temporarily, the events rivet the public’s attention, and (sometimes) motivate post-event solutions like better building codes, improved floodplain regulations, retrofitting programs, strengthened infrastructure, and a more prepared and aware populace in the disaster-affected communities.

All too soon, the disasters fall out of the nation’s view and become a strictly local matter. After all, disasters are local events. The affected local community next moves through recovery for years, sometimes even a decade. But somewhere along the line, the original passion to rebuild better or leverage new building science solutions can fall away either due to more concern for short-term costs or in response to opposition from those that eschew strong and strict development and building safety rules. Perhaps even worse, sometimes the original solutions that incorporate better practices may be implemented only to be diluted or reversed over time.

Alabama Adopts a Statewide Code Without Enforcement

One example of how initial commitments can wane is in Alabama where the infamous 2011 Tuscaloosa tornado outbreak caused 65 deaths and 1,500 injuries, according to NOAA. It cost an estimated $100 million to remove the debris from Tuscaloosa alone.[ix] And this was one tornado of the tornado outbreak between April 25 and 28th, responsible for nearly 350 deaths. According to academic, post-tornado engineering reports, lives would likely have been saved if Alabama had a residential building code in place before the tornadoes occurred. This insight supported a policy debate that led to enactment of the first statewide Alabama building code. Unfortunately, the Alabama statewide code is only voluntary, ergo not enforceable. At its best, it is weak as a tool to drive resilience.

It is important to note that some coastal Alabama leaders have adopted and do enforce model building codes as well as beyond-code programs like the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) FORTIFIED initiative. However, the balance of the state is still without the certainty of minimum life-safety protections afforded by a well-enforced statewide building code.

Jacksonville, Alabama was struck by deadly EF3 tornadoes in March of 2018. Forensic engineering examinations are underway now, but we believe they will reinforce the same message as in the past: that well-enforced codes would have made a material improvement in building performance. Of course, wood-frame homes built to the most recent code cannot resist an EF4 or EF5 tornado, but most tornadoes, even during larger events, are EF3 and below. Therefore, if homes are built to a modern code, and have safe rooms built to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) 320 or storm shelters tested and approved to meet the International Code Council/National Storm Shelter Association 500 standard, we could save lives and homes.

This idea is the premise of the “Dual-Objective-Based Tornado Design Philosophy” first proposed by Dr. John van de Lindt, Dr. David Prevatt, and others following forensic engineering investigations of deadly tornado outbreaks.

Louisiana Downgrades Flood Protection in the Bayou State

Another example is Louisiana. In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, the legislature enacted their first statewide residential building code, yet last year the legislatively-created building commission adopted the latest model code version without the minimum one-foot flood elevation (freeboard) requirement. The building commission did so despite recent experience with the 2016 East Baton Rouge flooding—an event that presented a billion-dollar case for preserving the minimum requirement

Prior to adopting the downgraded minimum code, a review of Louisiana’s 350 at-risk flood communities revealed that less than ten percent (33 jurisdictions) required the beneficial minimum one-foot or greater freeboard requirement. Adoption of the new 2015 version of the International Residential Code intact, without weakening the requirement, would have raised the standards for the remaining 317 at-risk communities, bringing new homes to a higher standard. Homeowners would have qualified for annual, flood insurance premium discounts; local officials would have retained the authority to exceed the minimal requirement if so desired; and taxpayers would have been protected from avoidable future disaster costs.

Moreover, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) data, more than 24,000 of the homes affected in the East Baton Rouge event endured flooding of one foot or less. Arguably, if these homes had been constructed under the new proposed freeboard requirement, 24,000 families would have avoided costly, disruptive, and life-altering damage and recovery time.

Despite this timely evidence, the Louisiana State Uniform Construction Code Council dropped the freeboard minimum. As a result, Louisiana homes flooded in the future will lack elevation protection unless they are in one of the 33 jurisdictions that implement elevation requirements.

Florida Reverses Twenty-Five Year Code Leadership Legacy

Another example of the eroding commitment to resilience policy is in Florida, where state leaders last year upended the state’s nationally-acclaimed building code system.

Now, instead of mandatory, on-time updates every three years, the Florida Building Commission will use an approach that is certain to fall behind the minimum standards. Instead of using the model building code as the foundation upon which Florida-specific amendments are made, the system has been flipped. Now, we will have a patchwork of random, piecemeal updates that could undermine safety for all structures where we live, work, and play in the highly populated, and highly disaster-prone State of Florida.

The net effect is that Floridians can no longer count on the certainty of a “latest and greatest” building code that addresses normal, as well as disaster-related practices. New science and innovation will be left behind. The only updates to the new model codes that are guaranteed to be included in the Florida Building Code will be those to maintain eligibility for federal funding and discounts from the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), FEMA, and HUD; however, no clear process has been established to facilitate this outcome

There can be material financial costs to this policy as well. States with enhanced mitigation plans that include modern, model codes that are current and consistently enforced qualify for more federal disaster relief dollars. Typically, such states or tribal governments receive Hazard Mitigation Grant Program funds based on 20% of the total estimated eligible Stafford Act disaster assistance, versus 15% for those with non-enhanced mitigation plans.[x]

Flood Insurance Sales Rise Then Fall as Memories Fade

We see many examples of this cyclical pattern in public policy, as well as public behavior. Consider how flood insurance sales spike, level off, and drop after disaster memories fade as they did following the “Great” Missouri and Mississippi River Floods in 1993, Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, Hurricane Ike in 2008, and so many more. Will the pattern persist after Hurricane Harvey as well?

It may take decades for families affected by Harvey to forget the case for flood insurance, if ever. But the overall evidence is clear. According to FEMA, only 25% of those that need flood insurance have a policy in force today.

Beyond the Building Code – Behavior

While we believe resilience is impossible without building codes, there are additional critical drivers. Levels of individual and family preparedness in disaster zones can either strengthen or weaken disaster resilience, and as trusted voices, leaders provide an important impetus for individual action.

When inspired to do so, individuals will prepare at home, evacuate when ordered, and buy earthquake or flood insurance as the best hedge again financial ruin. But are we inspiring the public to drive resilience or just instructing them?

Editor’s Note: Our third next installment is entitled, “Human Biases – Barriers or Boosts to Resilience?” and will apply insights on risk communication from “The Ostrich Paradox” by Drs. Robert Meyer and Howard Kunreuther, a must-read for anyone working to advance disaster safety behavior change.

[i] Brian K. Sullivan. Nov. 28, 2017. “2017 Hurricane Season Ranks as Costliest Ever for U.S.” Insurance Journal.

[ii] Brian K. Sullivan. Nov. 28, 2017. “2017 Hurricane Season Ranks as Costliest Ever for U.S.” Insurance Journal.

[iii] Brian K. Sullivan. Nov. 28, 2017. “2017 Hurricane Season Ranks as Costliest Ever for U.S.” Insurance Journal.

[iv] Brian K. Sullivan. Nov. 28, 2017. “2017 Hurricane Season Ranks as Costliest Ever for U.S.” Insurance Journal.

[v] Mike Moffitt. Oct. 14, 2017. “It’s now the deadliest wildfires disaster in California history.” SFGATE.

[vi] Adam B. Smith. Jan. 8, 2018. “2017 U.S. billion-dollar weather and climate disasters: a historic year in context.”

[vii] Associated Press. Jan. 31, 2018. “California Wildfires Caused $11.8 Billion in Damage in 2017. Time.


[ix] NOAA. “Tornadoes – April 2011.”

[x] FEMA. “Hazard Mitigation Planning Frequently Asked Questions.”

Learning from the 2017 Disasters to Create a Reliably Resilient U.S.

4-25-18 Blog Image

Understanding the deadly disaster outbreak to disrupt the “Build-Destroy-Rebuild” cycle and forever improve the quality of life for communities in harm’s way.

On May 2, 1935, Winston Churchill stated, “Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong – these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.”

George Santayana put it even more simply in 1905, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

These wise words are generally accepted, yet, when it comes to taking proven steps to create resilience in the face of natural disasters, we often fail to act. Perhaps the best example is whether we adopt and enforce the latest model building codes.

Building failure investigations have proven again and again that codes are the first and most important line of defense from natural disasters, yet far too many communities overlook this proven tool to ensure swift and successful “bounce back” after earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, or wildfires. The breakdown not only occurs before the disasters strike, but often during disaster recovery as well.

This sets up a cycle known as “Build-Destroy-Rebuild” where we build either without codes or with outdated codes, then natural disasters destroy our buildings, and we then rebuild them the same way, thereby perpetuating the cycle.

We have worked as a disaster safety and resilience movement for many years to overcome this problem, and we have enjoyed clear successes. But is there a more systematic way to accomplish our goals? Is this breakdown as simple as a communication problem? Do leaders and homeowners simply not know how important codes are to survivability from the storm?

We researched this question through a national survey during the first quarter of 2018 and validated that, yes, it may be that straightforward. Our findings indicated that while many homeowners were “very” or “extremely” concerned about the impacts of natural disasters, most admitted they did not understand the linkage between building codes and disaster resilience. Further, most incorrectly assumed that they already had adequate building codes in place and enforced in their communities. Finally, when asked how they would feel to learn they did not have codes at all, 67 percent reported they would be “extremely” or “very concerned” to learn that their home was built without the benefit of building codes and standards.

Building codes, standards, and floodplain regulation policies are complex and removed from everyday life. Typical consumers are not involved when key decisions are made. Even elected officials may be somewhat separated from the details as they balance limited resource allocation in the face many competing, more near-term priorities and rely on the technical expertise of others.

Our survey findings support this assumption and make it clear that there is a gap between public understanding of the link between building performance in disasters and the presence of well-enforced, modern building codes. With that in mind, we have written a new commentary reviewing last year’s “season of disasters.” As part of the review, we examine ways to move science and policy findings into practice with a special focus on improved risk communication.

We will be sharing our new commentary by publishing installments via this blog during the coming weeks as we countdown to May 1, the beginning of Building Safety Month and the May 7 kickoff of the 2018 National Hurricane Resilience Initiative – #HurricaneStrong.

Please follow us here for this critical conversation about the often-overlooked foundation of resilience: building codes and standards. If we learned anything last year, it is that we must break the “Build-Destroy-Rebuild” cycle. When we do, our communities will avoid a deadly and costly catastrophe history and provide a safer future for those who reside in harm’s way.

National Disaster Resilience Conference Recap Report Now Available


As communities started recovery in the wake of the unprecedented 2017 disaster losses of an estimated 250 billion dollars, public, private, and government thought leaders came together at the National Disaster Resilience Conference – Science, Policy, and Practice (#NDRC17) in Atlanta to forge a stronger vision for the future.

The conference took place from October 25 to 27, and attendees focused on how to improve science, policy, and practice to enhance life safety and improve building performance in the wake of earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires. Findings from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, as well as the California wildfires and Mexico earthquakes took center stage and provided real time inspiration for the leaders to increase future resilience for all communities.

Here is a link to the program recap, slides, video, and feedback survey.

How to be #HurricaneStrong for Hurricane Harvey

We shared this write-up today with our top tips for those in the path of Hurricane Harvey. This information is based on our experience for the past 19 years, and it covers some important lessons learned. For a more information, please visit,, or And please feel free to share. We will be on Twitter @FederalAlliance with #HurricaneStrong and our Facebook page now through the end of Harvey. 

Since 1998, the nonprofit Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH) has worked with families before, during, and after natural disasters. As Texas and Louisiana communities face the potential of destructive winds and flooding from Hurricane Harvey, here are their top “lessons learned” for life safety and property protection ahead of the storm.

1. Minimize Danger – Understand the Power of Rushing Water

According to the National Hurricane Center, storm surge accounts for approximately half the deaths in hurricanes since 1970. The National Weather Service (NWS) tells us that these tragedies happen because people underestimate the force, speed, and power of water. A modest six inches of fast-moving water can knock down an adult, 12 inches can carry away a small car, and 24 inches will move an SUV. That’s why FLASH and NWS created the Turn Around, Don’t Drown program in 2003 with lifesaving reminders. Watch this video to learn more, and remember that where it rains, it can flood.

2. Know Your Zone – Define Evacuation Needs

Two critical steps for survival are to identify whether you reside in a storm surge evacuation zone and to develop a plan for where you will be when the waters rise. Once you have your plan in place, heed all evacuation orders, and do so quickly. Remember, making the right decision to either stay or leave on a timely basis will keep you, your family, and your community’s first responders out of harm’s way. Use this updated list from FLASH to Find Your Evacuation Zone today.

3. Avoid Regrets – Secure Supplies and Build a Kit

You’ll need to plan for two situations—remaining home or evacuating to a different location. Click here for a comprehensive list of supplies that you will need to stay comfortable and safe.

4. Act Now – Reduce Home and Contents Damage

You still have time for some meaningful steps to protect your property from Harvey. Take the following actions to protect from expected flooding:

  • Clean out gutters and ensure downspouts are clear to allow water to flow away from the home.
  • Prepare and place sandbags using these steps to ensure they don’t topple. (Don’t forget to review safe disposal guidelines.)
  • Elevate, wrap, and move valuable carpets, electronics, and furniture to a higher floor or alternate location.
  • Secure cleanup materials (masks, gloves, mops, buckets, bleach, etc.) before the storm.

Click here for a full list of pre-storm flood mitigation options. If you reside in an area where high winds are expected, click on this link to read or watch a video with hurricane prep steps broken into one-hour, one-day, and one-weekend checklists.

5. Stay Connected – Communication is Key

Visit to download a severe weather alerting App for your iOS or Android powered device. Scroll down to “Settings” and select “Notifications”. Choose all relevant coastal, flood, hurricane, thunderstorm, tornado, and wind alerts to ensure you stay up-to-date with all watches and warnings issued by the NWS. This App costs $4.99 (less than a typical $30 weather radio), and $1 of each sale supports FLASH.

Be sure to refresh your supply of batteries, flashlights, and hand crank or solar-powered chargers. Keep a landline telephone plugged in as battery-powered phones will not work during a power outage.

6. Buy Insurance – The Key to Recovery

Homeowners, renters, and flood insurance policies are the most effective financial recovery tools available for storm victims, but often many realize too late that flood insurance is a separate policy that requires a 30-day waiting period. It’s likely that you won’t be able to add a flood policy or change any of your regular policy coverage in time for Hurricane Harvey, but you should still contact your agent or company in advance. Understanding your policy limits, co-insurance, deductibles, and where to call with any claims will come in handy if you are affected by the storm.

Whether you reside along the coast or well inland, planning now and following the above advice can help you if Hurricane Harvey heads your way. For more information, visit, email, follow @FederalAlliance on Twitter, follow FLASH on Facebook, or call (877) 221-SAFE (7233).