New Podcast: #HurricaneStrong Home Hacks that Save Time and Money

Strengthening our homes for hurricane season to ensure damage prevention is more important than ever this year due to COVID-19 and the potential need for social distancing.

This week’s Strong Homes, Safe Families! podcast, checklists (click here), and feature video (click here) provide information about affordable ways to get your home #HurricaneStrong, so you and your family are ready for the already-busy season.

6-6-20 Soffits Fan Graphic Twitter V2

My guest expert for this podcast discussion is Bill Ferimer, Lowe’s Store Manager in Wilmington, North Carolina. This 15-minute discussion will get you well on your way.


Bill Ferimer

Bill Ferimer, Store Manager – Lowe’s

Topics Include:

  • Resilience: How to remain #HurricaneStrong, and bounce back from natural disasters
  • Damage Prevention – Steps to weather the wind and water:
    • Roof: Use caulking inside the attic for added strength
    • Soffits: Use caulking to ensure that soffits stay in place when it matters most
    • Openings: Use hurricane shutters to protect doors and windows
  • Timing: Prepare for hurricanes now and take strengthening your home seriously
  • #HurricaneStrong Survey: Increased intent to prepare
  • Projectiles: Around the yard, remove or anchor items such as swing sets to prevent damage
  • Gutters and Downspouts: Clean, clear, and functioning properly to direct water flow
  • Prep Kits: Must-haves include gutter tools, tarps, nails, hammers, ladders, buckets, chainsaws, and necessary accessories
  • Sandbags: Redirect stormwater and debris away from your home

How to Clean Gutters Image

Click here to listen to this week’s Strong Homes, Safe Families! podcast episode, and don’t forget to subscribe, rate, share, and provide a review on iTunes.

New Podcast: Skills + Supplies Today = Safety and Survival Tomorrow

What’s in your hurricane supply kit? Do you have what you need to make repairs after a storm? Can you safely operate a generator? How about a chainsaw?

5-27-20 Disaster Supply Checklist Graphic Final

This week’s podcast with checklists (click here) and videos provides the refresher you need to make sure you are #HurricaneStrong and ready for the June 1 start of hurricane season. My guest expert for this discussion on episode three of Strong Homes, Safe Families! is Sean Reilly, District Manager for Lowe’s along North and South Carolina coasts⁠—between Myrtle Beach and Morehead City. In this interview, Sean talks about the importance of individual and family preparedness by having adequate disaster know-how, supplies, and equipment.

Sean Reilly

Sean Reilly, District Manager – Lowe’s

Topics Include:

  • Front and Center: Sean’s fair share of storm experiences and hurricane challenges
  • Store Environment: Hurricane watches and potential for landfall sets the mood
  • People and Preparation: Lowe’s guides customers, associates, and communities
  • Think Outside the Box/Kit: People tend to forget other essentials, including a home battery phone charger, extra gasoline, and charcoal or propane to cook food
  • Sentimental Storage: Save pictures, videos, and documentation in waterproof areas
  • Equipment: Know how to safely use portable generators, chainsaws, and other tools

Generator with ButtonChainsaw with button




Please click here to listen to this week’s episode.

For those of you in Florida, don’t forget the Florida Disaster Preparedness Sales Tax Holiday is Friday, May 29 through Thursday, June 4, so it’s a great time to save on your supplies. If you’re stocking up at Lowe’s, look for the #HurricaneStrong signs in the store or visit to learn more.  

5-27-20 Lowe's Signage


New Podcast: The Scoop on Hurricane Shutters


Before Mother Nature heads your way, are you prepared for hurricane season? My guest for Episode Two on Strong Homes, Safe Families! is Tim Robinson, managing partner of Global Protection Products and president of the International Hurricane Protection Association. In this interview Tim tells us everything you need to know to choose the right hurricane shutters for your home.

Topics Include:

  • About Tim: Firefighter, businessman, and philanthropist
  • Opening Protection: Windows, glass doors, and older openings
  • Code/Testing Requirements: Change is inevitable when building impact-rated products
  • Two Test Types: Wind cycle and impact resistance to approve products
  • Options: What are they? How are they mounted? How much do they cost?
  • Galvanized steel vs. aluminum panel
  • Clear or polycarbonate storm panel
  • Fabric panel
  • Accordion shutter
  • Roll-up shutter
  • Hinged-colonial or Bahama shutter
  • ROI: Insurance savings and discounts
  • Lessons Learned: No matter what shutter system is selected, maintain it regularly

Please click here to listen to this week’s episode and don’t miss our new Hurricane Shutter Comparison Checklist (click here).

Tim RobinsonTim Robinson, Managing Partner – Global Protection Products 

New Podcast: NHC Director Ken Graham – Getting #HurricaneStrong Ahead of the 2020 Season

Ken Graham
Ken Graham, Director – National Hurricane Center

Are you prepared to protect your family and home before hurricane season hits? Will you be able to bounce back swiftly? My guest this week on Strong Homes, Safe Families! is Ken Graham from the National Hurricane Center in Miami, and he shares plenty of insights about how to stay safe.

Ken and I talk about the science, public policy, and practice of being better prepared for hurricanes, including a discussion of COVID-19. Please click here to listen to this week’s episode.

Topics Include:

  • Rising Water Evacuation: Why and when Ken decided to become a meteorologist
  • Disaster Resilience: Bouncing back to recover quickly from a hurricane is possible
  • Science: Meteorological breakthrough with track forecast and ability to narrow errors
  • Public Policy: Best practices to be resilient by knowing when and where to evacuate
  • Practice: Risk communication, perception, decision-making, and other human factors
  • Tech Tools: People flee storms, but hurricane hunters use technology to collect data
  • Preparation: Positive impact due to COVID-19 pandemic

“Little wiggles in the forecast matter. Everyone listening needs to understand that a 20- or 40-mile wiggle can make the difference to someone on the ground experiencing a foot of storm surge or maybe ten of feet storm surge.” – Ken Graham

LCH and Ken Graham

National Weather Service New Orleans/Baton Rouge team members, Ken Graham, and Leslie Chapman-Henderson strike the #HurricaneStrong “Pose”

Research Finds Consumer Overconfidence Regarding Building Codes in Disaster-Exposed Communities

Nonprofit Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH) announces a research-informed initiative to address missing or outdated building codes across the United States

Building Code Statistic Graphic Shareable

The nonprofit Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH)® Partnership today announced consumer research findings and analysis underpinning a new transparency initiative entitled, No Code. No Confidence. Inspect to The organization created the effort after consumer surveys revealed that Americans are highly confident that building codes are already “in place” even though most communities at-risk for disaster are without necessary structural codes and standards for safe and optimal building performance.

The new commentary Why Americans Aren’t Concerned About Building Codes (even though they should be), outlines the research effort and introduces—a new website that provides current residential building code statuses in an easy-to-understand format. The paper previews new Public Service Announcements, animations, and other program elements as well.

Two separate tracks informed to the campaign creation. First, behavior-focused studies indicated that while most consumers are not concerned or interested in codes, they strongly rejected the idea that codes may be absent or inadequate. Moreover, eight of ten assumed, incorrectly, that they are at least moderately protected by building codes. Another two-thirds of those surveyed indicated they would be very or extremely concerned to learn they had no code at all using words such as terrified to describe the scenario.

A companion effort focused on engineering analysis of residential building codes in more than twenty-three thousand U.S. cities and towns facing floods, high wind, hurricane, seismic, or tornado hazards. The analysis revealed that only 7,265 of the 23,000 communities had building codes with disaster-resistant provisions incorporated for both commercial and residential codes. This means that 69% of evaluated U.S. communities facing one or more of the above-described hazards is doing so without the benefit of current, relevant structural building codes.

“The research validates what we have always believed. Consumers are largely unaware of the dangerous gap between building code adoption, enforcement, and disaster risk,” said FLASH President and CEO Leslie Chapman-Henderson. “They do not understand that they may live in a community without the protection of current, modern building codes and standards. That is why we’re providing them with a way to find out where they stand.” allows consumers to identify the building codes used in their community currently by inputting their address to see a map with a color-coded analysis of red, yellow, green, or black. The colors indicate residential code versions based on the best available, verified national data, and reflect the status of International Residential Code (IRC) model adoption. Consumers should contact their local building or planning department to learn about the code enforcement requirements as well as they may be voluntary, mandatory, or nonexistent.

“The best way to predict home performance before a disaster is to understand how it was built,” said Chapman-Henderson. “That’s why we are bringing this information out in the open. The No Code. No Confidence. initiative and website are unprecedented efforts to de-complicate building codes for consumers and empower them with the knowledge to better prepare for severe weather events and natural disasters.”

Today, FLASH is launching a communication campaign to promote the new initiative. The campaign includes thought-provoking Public Service Announcements like the “Four-way Stop”, and a 2D movie trailer animation depicting the “Tale of Two Towns.” Social media advertising will help drive consumers to the website as well.

The project is a multi-year effort and new elements and data will be continuously incorporated.

Learn more at, email to, or call (877) 221-SAFE (7233).


The nonprofit Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH) is the country’s leading consumer advocate for strengthening homes and safeguarding families from natural and manmade disasters. The FLASH partnership includes more than 100 innovative and diverse organizations that share a vision of making America a more disaster-resilient nation including: BASF Corporation, FEMA, Florida Division of Emergency Management, Huber Engineered Woods, International Code Council, ISO, Lowe’s, National Weather Service, Portland Cement Association, Simpson Strong-Tie, State Farm, and USAA. In 2008, FLASH, and Disney opened the interactive weather experience StormStruck: A Tale of Two Homes, in Lake Buena Vista, FL. Learn more about FLASH and access free consumer resources by visiting, calling toll-free (877) 221- SAFE (7233), following @federalalliance on Twitter, on, and the FLASH blog – Protect Your Home in a FLASH.

Six Common Sense Imperatives for Better Home Building


How transparency, policy reform, and better construction can drive resilience in disaster-prone regions across the U.S.

Two days after Hurricane Michael, I told The Washington Post, “We have evidence that we can construct affordable housing that is resilient.” I shared home survival stories from Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and pointed up how affordably-built houses often outperform more expensive structures when tested by disasters. The intrepid Post reporters went on to locate and showcase a current case where five homes built by Habitat for Humanity volunteers in the Florida Panhandle survived Hurricane Michael, a nearly Category Five storm.

The stunning front page story surprised some with clear and convincing proof that we can build resiliently in the face of disaster by using simple, affordable concepts. The national story helped families understand that everyone can have a disaster-resistant home.

We need more coverage like the Post story to help spread the word about affordable home resilience and many other common-sense basics of disaster safety. We need public and leadership support for meaningful changes that can help move the U.S. past the current home building model of “Build-Destroy-Rebuild” to one where we “Build to Last” instead.

This week, I will open our 2018 National Disaster Resilience Conference by offering six tactics to improve how homes perform in disaster zones. Some of these are surprisingly simple. Some are already in place. All are ready for implementation today.

 Increasing Consumer Transparency

  1. Individual Home Ratings

In 2006, our organization, the nonprofit Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH), designed and implemented the $25 million pilot for the landmark $250 million My Safe Florida Home wind retrofit program. As part of that work, we designed an inspection-based, high-wind rating for homes using a 1 to 100 scale that was used in more than 400,000 inspections. The Florida Legislature liked the home score concept so much that they passed a law to require its inclusion during real estate closings. Sadly, the law was quietly repealed the following year at the urging of industries opposed to transparency, but the concept lives on.

Americans understand rating systems whether they are for cholesterol, cars, or schools. It’s time we add homes to the list. Today, we have much better data to create this system, and we can rate homes for all types of features from energy efficiency to durability, earthquake/flood/high-wind resistance, and more. We stand ready to support the effort.

  1. Home Construction – Basic Disclosures

Every home should have a permanently mounted identification plate next to the circuit breaker box that states:

  • Year Built and Permitted
  • Year of Model Building Code Used (if any) and Indication of Weakening Amendments Present Yes/No
  • Builder Name, Contact Information, and License # (if any)
  • Building Inspector Name, Contact Information, and License # (if any)

These things sound mundane, but when it comes to real estate, these details are often buried in closing documents instead of conveniently showcased like a handy sticker on our car door. Why does it matter? Several reasons. First, the best predictor of home performance in an earthquake, hurricane, or any disaster will be understanding which (if any) code was used. Next, when names and products are aligned, professional accountability often follows. Having the builder’s and building inspector’s name listed can not only inspire consistency, but it can improve performance too.

Lastly, unlike cars, buyers of existing homes may not have easy access to details about home systems. Knowing how to find the builder will make it simpler for new owners to learn about and maintain their purchase for the long haul.

  1. Disaster History Database now includes a feature called “Hazard Maps” to help prospective home buyers evaluate value through the prism of potential for future disaster losses. The feature provides colored maps reflecting presence of earthquake, flooding, hurricane, tornado, and wildfire hazards.

Why not a similar feature that discloses past disaster losses for each home on an individual basis?

High-quality, granular “Big Data” about disaster and insurance claims already exists. We would like to see it leveraged and added as a featured disclosure on the MLS system, as well as websites like Trulia and Zillow.

This recommendation is simple, understandable, and powerful in its benefit for consumers to make informed buying decisions. We already have CARFAX. Could HouseFax be next?

Strengthening Public Policy

  1. Timely Adoption and Enforcement of Modern, Model Building Codes

Believe it or not, many communities are still built without the benefit of current model building codes and reliable enforcement practices to ensure consistent residential construction quality. Moreover, many state and local governments adopt model codes only to weaken or ignore their mandates.

Building codes provide the minimum safety standard for a structure, so it is critical that we use them, but why aren’t consumers worried about this?

For years, we speculated that consumers are not concerned about building codes because they don’t understand that they may not have them. This year, we researched that theory and we are correct. Our survey revealed that consumers are not worried about codes because they assume, incorrectly, that local leaders would never allow building without safety standards. Moreover, they expressed strong conviction that home builders that oppose codes are “shoddy” (their words).

I think our study says it all, and we will have more to share about it in the coming months. In the meantime, leaders need only look to the Hurricane Michael devastation in the Florida Panhandle to see the long-term consequences of short-term thinking when it comes to weakening building codes.

Upgrading Existing Homes

  1. Home Inspection and Retrofitting Grants

As part of the same My Safe Florida Home pilot program described above, we developed the first large-scale  U.S. wind retrofitting grant program that allowed for improvements to (1) opening protection (shutters or replacement of windows, doors, gable vents, soffits of a certain size); (2) roofing (enhanced roof deck attachment, secondary water barrier or underlayment, and high-wind/impact-resistant roof coverings); (3) reinforcement of gable ends, attached structures (porches), or more.

At its conclusion, the matching grants helped 35,000 Florida families strengthen their homes for future hurricanes. It inspired similar public programs in other hurricane-prone states, and private market retrofit financing programs as well.

The concept makes great sense once you understand that most of existing U.S. housing stock was built before the advent of modern, model codes. As such, we recommend that states and local governments begin to inventory and identify options for strengthening older homes against whatever hazards they face today. This can be done in conjunction with other housing programs that address affordable housing and energy efficiency.

When you think about the relative difficulty of strengthening existing homes as opposed to building it right the first time, enforcing strong model building codes for new construction makes even more sense.

  1. Rebuilding with Resilience in Mind

Large scale disasters bring massive rebuilding and recovery efforts that last for years and often decades. Whether a home is damaged by a loss such as house fire, or in a natural disaster like a hurricane, recovery efforts present a meaningful opportunity to upgrade homes with resilience in mind.

However, aside from coverage for mandatory law and ordinance upgrades, homeowner insurance contracts generally provide only for a return to pre-loss status. While this is understandable and consistent with the principles of insurance, it means that rebuilding after a loss typically excludes meaningful ways to strengthen housing stock before the next disaster occurs.

As a result, resilience upgrades like bracing cripple walls, enhancing roof connection systems, installing impact- and wind-resistant roof coverings, and stronger entry doors, or upgrading to wildfire-resistant materials become optional and must be paid for by the homeowner. Often, enhancements are beyond the financial reach of a family as they work to recover from the loss.

Ironically, the difference between the insurance-funded repairs and the cost of disaster-resilient upgrades is often manageable, but no systematic program exists to inform homeowners of resilience upgrade options, provide or identify funding to bridge the gap between claims proceeds and optional upgrades, or support the retrofitting and rebuilding through to conclusion.

We suggest that mitigation upgrade programs for families residing or rebuilding in disaster zones can be funded with both private donations or public funds, e.g., the FEMA Pre-disaster Mitigation (PDM) program expanded as part of the newly enacted federal Disaster Recovery Reform Act.

The Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety Fortified program offers “beyond-code” methods for high wind and other hazards. In fact, Fortified provided the construction recipe used on the surviving homes examined by The Washington Post in the above-referenced story. Bridging the cost gap between insurance proceeds and resilience upgrades like those outlined in Fortified closes the distance between status quo and resilience for recovering families.

We know it can work because we piloted one of the first such programs in tornado-stricken Moore, Oklahoma and Louisville, Mississippi in 2012. As a result, 225 low-income families there now have tornado shelters, as well as peace of mind. We called it, “The Resilience Fund.” The model is ready and replicable.


We have shared the above ideas through service on councils, reform commissions, task forces, and FLASH programming since 1998. Individually, any one of these can improve home building quality. Some of them already do.

We offer these measures again today to continue the conversation around our movement’s “rethink” of how we build in the wake of the 2017 and 2018 disasters. After twenty years in the trenches, we know that increasing consumer transparency and building with risk in mind will reduce deaths and prevent losses before disasters strike. Further, we know that policy reforms deliver everyday benefits through more durable and energy-efficient structures as well.

What we don’t know is exactly how soon the next disaster will come. As such, there is no time to lose in making these options available for everyone, and we need the strong and growing cadre of industry and policy leadership champions to make it happen—today. When they do, home survival in disasters will become the rule, not the exception.

“Learning from the 2017 Disasters to Create a Reliably Resilient U.S” Commentary Paper Now Available


The final, edited commentary paper entitled, “Learning from the 2017 Disasters to Create a Reliably Resilient U.S.” is now available. Please access the updated and complete version here.


All Disasters Are Local, But Decentralization Should Not Dilute Resilience

This is the ninth installment from 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.

As a disaster safety community of citizens, policymakers, practitioners, and scientists, we must focus on catastrophes one at a time. We handle them as they occur, responding generously with resources and national empathy. But we often lose the momentum of public support too swiftly to affect sweeping policy changes. Lessons are learned and sometimes preserved locally, but we run out of momentum to create or sustain change beyond the affected area.

Unfortunately, this approach has created a hodgepodge system of different resilience levels across the country depending on where you live. States like California have not only embraced minimum seismic building codes, but they are now looking to performance-based codes that will go beyond life safety to preserve property too. Contrast that with those counties in Texas that either do not adopt or do not enforce residential building codes.

This local approach is rational in a world where resources are finite, and disasters are an uncertainty. But it sustains a costly cycle of “Build-Destroy-Rebuild” because leaders sometimes have little incentive to create resilience through building code adoption and enforcement or other “DisasterSmart” policies.

Again, it is understandable. Why act differently so long as communities can expect generous post-disaster relief dollars with few strings attached?

One might counter these observations with the fact that states and local governments have self-determination. That is true. But self-determination without self-funding is inequitable. First, it is unfair to the affected homeowners who bear the cost of insurance deductibles and loss of quality of life during extended, disruptive recovery periods. Additionally, it is unfair to taxpayers beyond the disaster zone who pay through billion-dollar relief grants and subsidized programs like flood insurance.

The cost of disasters can be mitigated by implementing resilience tools like building codes and research-informed risk communication. That is why we are calling for local and state leaders to put strong, modern building codes and communication plans in place before disasters strike. The current system of incomplete resilience leaves U.S. communities on a roller coaster of life safety threats and economic whiplash driven by weather and earth movement, but we can blunt those extremes when we commit to best practices and proven policies.

After the 2017 experience, we see a legacy taking shape. We are moving beyond only a defined community of disaster safety stakeholders who understand and support the policies and practices necessary to affect change. We are moving on to a new and growing public where everyone values and understands that every city, county, township, tribe, and village can innovate and become resilient through leadership and resolve.

This brings us back to the wisdom of one of the world’s greatest leaders during times of crisis, Winston Churchill, who stated, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

We are committed to continuing, together, until we break the build-destroy-rebuild cycle once and for all.

Moving Science and Policy into Practice – A Strategy for Success

This is the eighth installment from 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.

The 2017 disasters revealed, and in all cases reminded us, that we have tremendous opportunities to mitigate and lessen impacts of these events. One of the most powerful means of improvement can come through better use of science that is incorporated into policy and practice on a reliably systematic basis. That is why our strategy is to mainstream useful science into use by leaders either as enlightened public policy or for use by all who affect our disaster resilience as improved building practices.

This is the case for collaboration with code officials, design professionals, elected officials, emergency managers, homebuilders, journalists, meteorologists, product manufacturers, and many others. But our most important target audience for sharing empowering information is the one with the most at stake: the consumer.

We focus on knowledge dissemination and application of developed research. We look to existing literature on how individuals perceive their vulnerability to disaster and the adoption of hazard adjustments, looking to research across disciplines, including communication, sociology, anthropology, political science, and psychology.[i] We continuously examine and adjust our risk communication techniques, defined as the intentional efforts on the part of one or more sources to provide information about hazards and hazard adjustments through a variety of channels to different audience segments.[ii]

In the end, we advance understanding to drive change.

Takeaways from 2017 – The Disaster Safety Movement Mandate for Action

Initially, we found the prospect of identifying trends and drawing conclusions out of the 2017 experience one of our most difficult tasks. However, despite the geographic diversity of hazards from floods and high wind to power outages and wildfires, we have found common themes and a clear mandate for improvement through commitment to these pillars.

  1. Modern, model building codes, standards, and floodplain regulations that are adopted on time and effectively enforced are non-negotiable.

Communities in the path of Hurricane Harvey fared better if they were elevated, like those in the Woodlands Reserve. A photographic array of homes along the coast in Rockport, Texas depicts different levels of damage depending on the vintage of the building code followed. So far, the stark differences in buildings that either failed or performed during Harvey is driving reexamination by responsible Houston and Texas leaders regarding floodplain management. We urge them to embrace more uniformly adopted and enforced residential codes as well, especially for counties without protections in place.

In the Keys, Hurricane Irma showed that homes built to the excellent Florida building code performed well, even when tested to near design-level winds. This validates our contention that Florida leaders need to reverse their 2017 legislative action and revert to the proven system to preserve Florida’s strong and certain codes. When they do, they can spare the Keys, and the entire hurricane-exposed Florida peninsula, a steady degradation of the best asset to ensure citizen safety and economic vitality after future hurricanes.

Homes built in Puerto Rico using cast-in-place concrete withstood high winds and a great deal of flooding too, but code enforcement should be improved territory-wide to ensure the benefits extend to all the island’s communities. Modernization of the building code system in the USVI is underway, and their efforts can serve as a model for leaders in the Caribbean, as well as stateside.

Wildfires in California make the case for evaluation of wildfire potential beyond the WUI, redefinition of at-risk communities, better mapping, investment in updated landslide maps, and expanded prohibition of combustible building materials and components.

Indisputably, building codes, standards, and smart floodplain management are the first and most important lines of defense in disasters of all kinds. If our structures fail, resilience is impossible. These default protections should be put in place to blunt inertia and simplification biases for leaders and to provide protection for communities.

  1. The basics are not basic, they are everything. We cannot repeat the core messages enough.

Those in the disaster safety and resilience community have learned and shared the same disaster safety messages repeatedly, but our familiarity should not cloud the need for ordered risk communication coupled with a constant reexamination of the efficacy of our efforts.

Mass marketing is a thing of the past. A “one size fits all” messaging approach does not work for diverse audiences, and now is the time to bring our most creative ideas and enthusiasm to messaging the basics of disaster safety against what sometimes seems like the Sisyphean task of reaching everyone. All audiences need to hear essential, key messages that will empower them to become resilient in the face of a single disaster, or multiple, major disasters in rapid succession like in 2017.

Perhaps our first and most important step is to develop an accepted set of heuristics, or “rules of thumb” to drive improved communication effectiveness. During the last few years, the FEMA Individual and Community Preparedness Division took on this challenge by creating a compendium of multi-hazard protective actions to boost safety in disasters. Now we need to spread this knowledge.

Earlier in this commentary, we outlined the FLASH #HurricaneStrong outreach campaign that created a simple, common language and “call to arms” to drive buy-in and preparedness actions before hurricanes. The campaign has not only given trusted voices a way to support five consistent messages, it has evolved into a community designation program that allows leaders to declare and articulate support for resilience.

A #HurricaneStrong community meets established objective and subjective criteria that drive improvement in safety, the built environment, economic resilience, and overall public engagement of hurricane-prone communities. Leaders following proven steps to safeguard their citizens will be now recognized for doing so.

  1. We must improve messaging to individuals, families, and community leaders before, during, and after disasters. Then, we must make the conversation two-way.

The Ostrich Paradox describes two cognitive systems. System one is for automated and instinctive thoughts, and system two is for more controlled thoughts. The authors describe late evacuations during Superstorm Sandy in a storm surge area as an example of a lack of knowledge of the hazard (storm surge) combined with an impulse to act from the first cognitive system (fear).

The biases at work here may include myopia (evacuating is more difficult/expensive than the short-term comfort of staying in my home); amnesia (the last hurricane wasn’t that bad); optimism (it won’t happen to me; forecasts change); inertia and simplification (there are so many things to do to evacuate, so I’ll just stay home); and herding (none of my neighbors are evacuating; a culture of we don’t leave our houses/we’ll be fine).

At the time of this writing, we do not have complete analysis of the precise patterns of decision-making that led to evacuation action or inactions in 2017, but we see a clear need for new collaborative research regarding evacuation behavior for storm surge, high winds, and wildfires. Additionally, we need more research-informed messaging insights to address the low percentage of flood insurance purchases, especially by those with economic means who reside in the high hazard areas.

We need to understand the message disconnect between perceived need and necessary behavioral change, and we need to accomplish this soon. It is our understanding that only 20% of the more than 136,000 homes flooded by Hurricane Harvey were insured for flood damage. According to FEMA, these families will qualify for an average of only $9,000 of assistance to rebuild under the programs currently in place. In many cases, the assistance is a loan that must be repaid.

How can we convey these harsh realities ahead of the next storm? Moreover, as we hone our message to improve effectiveness, how do we devise systems that allow for two-way communication as well?

Beyond traditional audiences who bring challenges as described above, it is our conviction that citizens with disabilities, access, and functional needs deserve and require more intense, individualized attention and messaging as well.

We must prioritize them, and that leads us to our next and final pillar.

  1. Inclusive disaster-resilience planning and practice is not mainstream.

Harvey, Irma, and the California wildfires reminded us to ensure our disaster preparations are tailored to our family’s needs, yet those with disabilities, access, and functional needs require extra preparations and assistance.

The nation watched in shock as Harvey-induced flooding left elderly residents of one Texas nursing home sitting in rising waters. Hurricane Irma generated power outages in South Florida, and twelve residents in one nursing home died after they succumbed to the unbearable, excessive heat. The California Wildfires resulted in the deaths of many older adults[iii], highlighting that limited mobility and unreliable cellphone service must be considered when preparing this population.[iv]

These outcomes should remain the focus of our most intense efforts at improvement. These citizens deserve our highest order of care.

To ensure we never forget, we need to accept, embrace, and advance the adage that those who can get ready without assistance have the responsibility to do so. Once we prepare, we can stand aside and allow the finite available resources to focus on those that need them.

The 2017 events demonstrate that we have a great deal more work to do to fulfill our potential and obligation to serve this population in our communities.

[i] National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. P. 107. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; Sheppard, Ben, Melissa Janoske, and Brooke Liu. “Understanding Risk Communication Theory: A Guide for Emergency Managers and Communicators,” Report to Human Factors/Behavioral Sciences Division, Science and Technology Directorate, U.S. Department of Homeland Security. College Park, MD: START, 2012.

[ii] National Research Council. 2006. Facing Hazards and Disasters: Understanding Human Dimensions. p.112. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11671.

[iii] Alene Tchekmedyian and Esmeralda Bermudez. Oct. 13, 2017. “California firestorm takes deadly toll on elderly; average age of victims identified so far is 79.” The Los Angeles Times.

[iv] Alene Tchekmedyian and Esmeralda Bermudez. Oct. 13, 2017. “California firestorm takes deadly toll on elderly; average age of victims identified so far is 79.” The Los Angeles Times.

Reviewing the 2017 Disaster Season – California Wildfires

This is the seventh installment from 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.

In 2017, there were nearly 9,000 wildfires in California, burning 1.2 million acres of land, killing at least 46 people, and destroying more than 10,800 structures.[i]

The stories of those that survived and perished are horrific.[ii] One couple survived in a swimming pool surrounded by flames.[iii] The stories of evacuations, smoke-filled roads, and no cell phone service all paint a picture of a disaster that we never want to see again.

Let’s begin our examination by looking at how these kinds of wildfires start.

We knew that wildfires develop and spread in the wildland urban interface (WUI). Weather conditions combined with development in WUIs (housing and vegetation intermix or are in close proximity of each other) have led to many recent wildfires.[iv] The blend of houses and forest on the fringe of metropolitan areas is common, and the Southern Appalachian region is one area of heaviest concentration in the WUI.[v] Consider these WUI basics:

  • More than 46 million homes in 70,000 U.S. communities are at risk of WUI fires. [vi]
  • Since the 1960s, U.S. residents in the WUI has increased from 25 million to 140 million.[vii]
  • From 1940 to 2000, the number of housing units within half a mile of a national forest grew to 1.8 million from 484,000.[viii]
  • Sixty percent of houses built between 1990 and 2000 are in wildfire-prone areas.[ix]
  • A 2002 FEMA report found that 38% of new home construction in the western U.S. was next to or intermixed with WUI areas.[x]
  • Annually, an average of 3,000 structures in the U.S. are destroyed by WUI fires.[xi]
  • Since 2000, more than 38,000 homes in the U.S. have been destroyed by WUI fires.[xii]
  • The total cost of WUI fires in 2009 was estimated to exceed $14 billion.[xiii]
  • In 2013, suppression costs alone were estimated to exceed $4.5 billion.[xiv]

We knew how to protect homes against wildfires.

Since 2008, California has required that new construction in moderate, high, and very high hazard areas comply with regulations in Chapter 7A of California’s building code, [xv] including a brush clearance zone within 100 feet of their property; non-combustible materials for roofs, wall sidings, and eaves; attic vents to stop embers from entering houses; and double-pane, tempered glass windows. [xvi]

Note that areas designated local responsibility, primarily cities and urban counties, are outside of the state requirements discussed here.[xvii]

However, these state requirements only apply to new construction, not existing construction. The Los Angeles Times noted that retrofitting ordinances for existing homes have been enacted for other hazards, like earthquakes, but “there has been no push so far, either at the state or local level, to require existing houses in fire zones to be upgraded.” [xviii]

The time has come to address existing construction as well.

Some assert that making wildfire-protected communities would be more effective than controlling flammable growth in the wild land, as is current practice. [xix] Communities, neighborhoods, and individual homeowners can greatly reduce the risk of wildfire spread through landscaping and construction choices guided by reducing ignition sources.

In the past, some have asserted that the obstacle to mandatory retrofitting programs is the difficulty of quantifying the cost and benefit of such measures.[xx] We think 2017 has the potential to change that calculus.

The insurance industry can also provide incentives for wildfire-resistant construction through insurability restrictions and actuarially-sound premium discounts, [xxi] although for a neighborhood to have optimal protection, the entire neighborhood should be built with fire in mind. If you have prepared your home, but your immediate neighbor has not and the fire spreads to their house, the fire may still spread to yours. Keeping fire away from the entire development gives each home the best chance for survival.

Also, why not expand the definition of fire hazard areas in California? The Los Angeles Times analysis of California’s maps for the highest-risk fire areas in Southern California revealed about 550,000 residences covered by the zones.[xxii] Adding areas with a lower, but still significant, fire risk would approximately double the number. [xxiii]

Modeling fire behavior is still in development, as wind and embers are difficult to map. [xxiv] Current WUI fire hazard maps algorithms account for vegetation, topography, and wind speed, but the Los Angeles Times analysis referenced above also found that using a different boundary would add about 450,000 Southern California housing units to the map. [xxv]

Clearly, there is a real opportunity for additional research into mapping wildfire hazards.

We knew that immediate evacuation during wildfires is a life or death decision. But are residents able to evacuate, especially those with disabilities, access, and functional needs? The high percent of older adults who perished in 2017 wildfires present an incontrovertible case for reexamination of our emergency practices, outreach, and education to this population.

We knew that California is known for wildfires, but what about the rest of the U.S.? While California has experienced many wildfires in its history, many other parts of the U.S. are vulnerable as well. According to NFPA’s Michele Steinberg, about 70 percent of the nation’s wildfires occur outside of the Western U.S.[xxvi] We saw this last year in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

We knew that wildfires make certain locations more susceptible to mudslides, with heavy rainfall on burned hillsides leading to mudslides (USGS notes that debris flows are sometimes referred to as mudslides, mudflows, among other terms, and that landslides are the larger category of a mass of rock, debris, or earth down a slope.)[xxvii] Land charred by fire and left without vegetation is more susceptible to flooding and debris flows, as burned soil can be as water repellent as pavement.[xxviii] And it may not take much rain to set off a mudslide, with .3 inches of rain in 30 minutes triggering mudslides in Southern California.[xxix]

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) warned of potentially devastating landslides in the wake of the Thomas wildfire in the mountainsides around Santa Barbara.[xxx] The mudslides in Montecito killed at least 21 people and destroyed more than a hundred homes.[xxxi] Several articles discuss the need for better mapping for landslides, including the points that maps either aren’t developed (or are exceptionally outdated) or that landslide hazard maps generally don’t show predicted run-out zones, rather just where landslides are likely to start. [xxxii]

Yet we cannot overlook the important work the USGS, other federal agencies, and the states are doing. The USGS Landslide Hazards Program creates hazard maps and forecasts and undertakes real-time monitoring of landslides across disasters, including USGS efforts in Puerto Rico mapping landslide frequency as a result of Hurricane Maria.[xxxiii] The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Goddard Space Flight Center has created a global map of potential landslide areas taking into account annual precipitation rates.[xxxiv] Several states or regions have developed landslide inventories in maps or databases, largely the result of Stafford Act mandates.[xxxv]

Unfortunately, as with building codes, fears of hindering development have sometimes taken priority over making citizens safe from landslides. This was seen in North Carolina in 2004, when the legislatively approved program to map landslide hazards was canceled over concerns that the maps would adversely affect development.[xxxvi]

Updated national landslide maps are needed. A 2014 article cited that the last national landslide overview map was produced in 1982, long before computerized mapping tools became commonplace. The analysis suggests that the 1982 map is poorly defined and referred to as a “cartoon”, with officials warning the public not to zoom in too closely on the map lest they receive bad information. Also, there are multiple types of landslide maps (e.g., landslide-inventory, landslide hazard, landslide-risk, landslide-zone) for the U.S. to update/develop.[xxxvii]

One proposed piece of legislation, the National Landslide Loss Reduction Act (H.R. 4776, H.R.1675) would establish a National Landslide Hazards Reduction Program to identify landslide hazard risks along with other initiatives, directing the USGS to establish the first national landslide hazards inventory for the United States.[xxxviii]

Among other things, this legislation focuses on the lack of uniformity in landslide risk assessment and prediction practices in the U.S., including a collective landslide inventory for the U.S. or an agreed upon method of creating one.[xxxix]

Partnerships for Reducing Landslide Risk: Assessment of the National Landslide Hazards Mitigation Strategy also identifies a national landslide inventory as “an important first step toward an appreciation of the true scope and distribution of landslide hazards,” with an accurate inventory providing “metrics for national policies and would greatly reduce the present uncertainty concerning the magnitude of economic loss and environmental damage caused by landslides.[xl]

The call for continued investments in mitigating landslide hazards across the U.S. seems clear. This is another issue that would benefit from transparency as homeowners need to know the risks they face when they build or buy their homes. Unfortunately, as Montecito showcased, we want to build in beautiful, albeit risk-prone, places. Mapping and accurately reflecting the hazards would help homeowners understand their potential risk as part of a buying decision as well as inform to mitigation options. California requires disclosure of specified natural hazards for certain types of real estate transfers, including whether the property is in a landslide zone (CAL CIV. §§1103).

Misfires in risk communication lead to confusion (at best) and fatalities (at worst), and this presents a strong case for continued research and resources to ensure the public is equipped with life-saving information that is available when they need it and in the form they will receive it.

How We Are Moving Forward

Existing, available wildfire preparedness resources from FEMA and Firewise provide individuals and families with useful tools to prepare themselves and their homes for wildfires. Firewise USA is a program of the National Fire Protection Association, co-sponsored by the USDA Forest Service, the US Department of the Interior, and the National Association of State Foresters. Firewise focuses on a local approach to increase wildfire safety and encourages homeowners to take responsibility for preparation and mitigation. The program teaches ways to adapt and live with wildfire while encouraging neighbors to work together.

Firewise works. In 2007, our organization produced a video documenting successful performance of building and landscaping wildfire strategies entitled, Tale of Two Homes – Wildfire.[xli] The video showcases starkly different outcomes for families affected by the Witch Creek fires in San Diego County in October 2007. Santa Ana winds fueled the Witch Creek fires, and they burned nearly 200,000 acres and more than 1,000 homes.

Our video profiled affected homeowners in Rancho Bernardo. The first homeowner, R.J., lost his house when his combustible wooden deck ignited and fueled the inundation and destruction. He barely had time to evacuate his family and drove down a dark canyon road to escape. A local fire chief described the wooden deck and vegetation underneath as “organized kindling.”

The second homeowner, Helena, was the only one on the cul-de-sac of six homes whose house survived. It survived because she took steps before the disaster. She replaced her combustible wooden-shake roof with class A fire-resistive asphalt shingles, placed wire mesh around her deck to keep embers from getting underneath, and she planted fire-resistant landscaping with higher water content to reduce the ignitability of the plant material.

FLASH partners have used the wildfire video, and Tale of Two Homes video series, for years, and the stories and messaging help address several of the identified “biases.”

Showcasing Helena’s experience tackles the myopia bias by demonstrating the tangible benefits of her investments in Firewise practices. The video profile tackles the inertia bias by depicting her actions as achievable, even by a woman of 82. It also addresses the optimism bias by depicting everyday people “just like me” that were affected by the fires. This helps people see themselves inside the very real stories of R.J. and Helena.

The lessons learned in Witch Creek and other conflagrations have become policy. The California WUI building codes and local regulations prohibiting of the use of ignitable materials like wood-shake shingles are helping to mitigate wildfire damage to newer homes, but we must address existing homes as well. For starters, older homes should be retrofitted and required to incorporate defensible space recommendations, including up to a 100-foot protective area where feasible.

Additionally, 2017 makes reexamination, perhaps redefinition, of fire hazard zones a sound pursuit. Jurisdictions may need to expand fire hazard zones as discussed in the Los Angeles Times article that identifies 550,000 California homes in wildfire zones, but points out that they not alone.[xlii] Weather conditions in California and the west coast e.g., Santa Ana winds in Southern California/Diablo winds in Northern California, make wildfires a risk for more than historically expected.

Evacuation protocols must be reevaluated, communicated, and consistently reinforced so that people are aware and ready go to as the question of “where to go” often remains. This was same quandary for Floridians during Hurricane Irma when the massive hurricane covered the entire state and people weren’t sure if their home could handle such a powerful storm.

Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said that the public seemed more willing to follow mandatory evacuation orders after the Santa Rosa fires.[xliii] Certainly what has happened in California will contribute to overcoming an amnesia bias (distorted view of past events), as well as herding bias (imbalanced influence on behavior of peers) as neighbors evacuate.

Wildfire science is still exploring the best ways to control the spread of fire in the WUI and beyond. We think creating fire-protected neighborhoods is an achievable goal for every neighborhood prone to wildfires. Leaders and homeowners can come together to create safer communities.

Of all the hazards we work to mitigate, wildfire can be the most affordable as many of the protective measures are inexpensive or even free, especially those focused on landscaping or creating a protective zone without fuel sources around the home.

The first step is to ensure that homeowners understand the most fundamental part of the mitigation opportunity—to reduce or eliminate fuels. Fire needs three ingredients to occur—air, heat, and fuel. We cannot restrict air or heat, but we can reduce and/or eliminate fuels. That is why we promote wildfire mitigation with a simple statement, “No Fuel – No Fire.” We want to break through the clutter and help people understand that the only way to tackle wildfire is to tackle fuels whether they are building materials like roof shingles or living materials like vegetation or plant debris.

As California continues its long recovery from the fires and mudslides last year, we again return to the fundamental opportunities to break the cycle of “Build-Destroy-Rebuild.” We can reduce wildfire loss of life and property damage through building codes and local regulations for new construction methods and materials, as well as retrofitting and removing ignitable building components like decks, cladding, and roof coverings on existing homes. We can mount more effective risk communication practices regarding protective actions and evacuation and create updated wildfire zone maps that reflect the growing risk in and beyond the WUI.

Across all these solutions, we must prioritize service and support for those with access and functional needs, especially the elderly, to ensure survival for all members of our communities.

[i] Lauren Tierney. Jan. 4, 2018. “The grim scope of 2017’s California wildfire season is now clear. The danger’s not over.” The Washington Post.

[ii] Marjie Lundstrom. Oct. 22, 2017. “’It’s just luck – kismet.’ Why some people lived and others died in California fires.” The Sacramento Bee.

[iii] Sean Breslin. Oct. 13, 2017. “Couple Survives Northern California Wildfires by Hiding in Pool.” The Weather Channel.

[iv] Priya Krishnakumar and Joe Fox. Oct. 13, 2017. Updated Dec. 5, 2017. “Why the 2017 fire season has been one of California’s worst.” Los Angeles Times.

[v] Did Building Codes Contribute to Tennessee Wildfire Damage?

[vi] Wildland and WUI Fire Research Planning Workshop Proceedings. July 14, 2015, Centennial Colorado. Prepared by: Casey C. Grant, P.E. Fire Protection Research Foundation.

[vii] Gregory Scruggs. Oct. 19, 2017. “Rampant land development will worsen U.S. wildfires – experts.” Reuters.

[viii] Gregory Scruggs. Oct. 19, 2017. “Rampant land development will worsen U.S. wildfires – experts.” Reuters.

[ix] Gregory Scruggs. Oct. 19, 2017. “Rampant land development will worsen U.S. wildfires – experts.” Reuters.

[x] Priya Krishnakumar and Joe Fox. Oct. 13, 2017. Updated Dec. 5, 2017. “Why the 2017 fire season has been one of California’s worst.” Los Angeles Times.

[xi] Wildland and WUI Fire Research Planning Workshop Proceedings. July 14, 2015, Centennial Colorado. Prepared by: Casey C. Grant, P.E. Fire Protection Research Foundation.

[xii] Wildland and WUI Fire Research Planning Workshop Proceedings. July 14, 2015, Centennial Colorado. Prepared by: Casey C. Grant, P.E. Fire Protection Research Foundation.

[xiii] Wildland and WUI Fire Research Planning Workshop Proceedings. July 14, 2015, Centennial Colorado. Prepared by: Casey C. Grant, P.E. Fire Protection Research Foundation.

[xiv] Wildland and WUI Fire Research Planning Workshop Proceedings. July 14, 2015, Centennial Colorado. Prepared by: Casey C. Grant, P.E. Fire Protection Research Foundation.

[xv] Information re CA WUI Codes (in effect January 1, 2008) Cal Fire. Office of the State Fire Marshal. “Wildfire Protection”.; California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Office of the State Fire Marshal. “Frequently Asked Questions About: Fire Hazard Severity Zoning and New Building Codes for California’s Wildland-Urban Interface.”; California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Office of the State Fire Marshal. “Fact Sheet: Wildland-Urban Interface Building Codes.”

[xvi] Doug Smith and Nina Agrawal. “550,000 homes in Southern California have the highest risk of fire damage, but they are not alone.” The Los Angeles Times.

[xvii] Doug Smith and Nina Agrawal. “550,000 homes in Southern California have the highest risk of fire damage, but they are not alone.” The Los Angeles Times.

[xviii] Doug Smith and Nina Agrawal. “550,000 homes in Southern California have the highest risk of fire damage, but they are not alone.” The Los Angeles Times.

[xix] Doug Smith and Nina Agrawal. “550,000 homes in Southern California have the highest risk of fire damage, but they are not alone.” The Los Angeles Times.

[xx] Doug Smith and Nina Agrawal. “550,000 homes in Southern California have the highest risk of fire damage, but they are not alone.” The Los Angeles Times.

[xxi] Doug Smith and Nina Agrawal. “550,000 homes in Southern California have the highest risk of fire damage, but they are not alone.” The Los Angeles Times.

[xxii] Doug Smith and Nina Agrawal. “550,000 homes in Southern California have the highest risk of fire damage, but they are not alone.” The Los Angeles Times.

[xxiii] Doug Smith and Nina Agrawal. “550,000 homes in Southern California have the highest risk of fire damage, but they are not alone.” The Los Angeles Times.

[xxiv] Doug Smith and Nina Agrawal. “550,000 homes in Southern California have the highest risk of fire damage, but they are not alone.” The Los Angeles Times.

[xxv] Doug Smith and Nina Agrawal. “550,000 homes in Southern California have the highest risk of fire damage, but they are not alone.” The Los Angeles Times.

[xxvi] Angelo Verzoni. Mar. 1, 2017. Not Ready for Prime Time.

[xxvii] Lynn M. Highland, et al. Debris-Flow Hazards in the United States. U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet 176-97.

[xxviii] Brian Lada. “How wildfires leave communities vulnerable to flooding, mudslides for years.” AccuWeather.

[xxix] Sydney Periera. Jan. 10, 2018. “Calfornia: Massive Mudslides Are Killing People Because the Fires Destroyed Nearly 300,000 Acres of Land.” Newsweek.

[xxx] David R. Montgomery. Jan. 16, 2018. “Deadly California Mudslides Show the Need for Maps and Zoning that Better Reflect Landslide Risk.”

[xxxi] Krysta Fauria. Jan. 26, 2018. “Emotional residents return to California mudslide area.” AP.

[xxxii] David. R. Montgomery. Jan. 16, 2018. “Deadly California Mudslides Show the Need for Maps and Zoning that Better Reflect Landslide Risk.” Government Technology.

[xxxiii] FEMA. Nov. 2, 2017. “Mapping Landslides.”

[xxxiv] Apr. 12, 2016. “New Landslide Legislation to Help Alleviate Hazard Risks.” The Bridge: Connecting Science and Policy.

[xxxv] 2004. “Partnerships for Reducing Landslide Risk: Assessment of the National Landslide Hazards Mitigation Strategy.”

[xxxvi]; Bill Dedman. Apr. 7, 2014. “How Politics Buries Science in Landslide Mapping.”

[xxxvii] State of California Department of Conservation. “Landslides.”

[xxxviii] Apr. 12, 2016. “New Landslide Legislation to Help Alleviate Hazard Risks.” The Bridge: Connecting Science and Policy.

[xxxix] Apr. 12, 2016. “New Landslide Legislation to Help Alleviate Hazard Risks.” The Bridge: Connecting Science and Policy.

[xl] Partnerships for Reducing Landslide Risk: Assessment of the National Landslide Hazards Mitigation Strategy. P.46-47. For more information on the topic of Landslide Risk Reduction see “Landslide Risk Reduction in the United States—Signs of Progress.”

[xli] FLASH. 2008. “Tale of Two Homes – Wildfire.”

[xlii] 550,000 homes in Southern California have the highest risk of fire damage, but they are not alone,

[xliii] Jaclyn Cosgrove. Dec. 7, 2017. “The ‘enormous’ Thomas fire could burn for a few more weeks, fire chief says.” Los Angeles Times.