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).

FLASH urges Governor Scott to Veto HB 1021 to Save Florida’s Building Codes

May 31, 2017

Dear Governor Scott:

I am writing to express our opposition to the provisions affecting the Florida Building Code system in House Bill 1021, and to humbly request that you veto the bill in the interests of safety and the economic preservation of Florida’s communities.

The current Florida Building Code is considered by many to be one of the strongest, if not the strongest, building codes in the United States. As well it should be. The entire state of Florida is susceptible to an array of potentially devastating perils including hurricanes, tropical storms, flooding, wildfire, and hail to name a few. Accordingly, Floridians need homes that perform when tested by Mother Nature.1992andrew1

The existing Florida Building Code consists of model building codes as the foundation or starting point upon which Florida-specific amendments are then made. This ensures that Florida keeps pace with the most up-to-date building code provisions while preserving the ability to make amendments. The International Codes created by the International Code Council are among these model codes and are created through a consensus-based process that meets national standards, costing approximately $9 million annually.

House Bill 1021 eliminates the requirement to update the Florida Building Code every three years using model building codes and instead proposes that the Florida Building Commission review the model codes for changes one at a time. House Bill 1021 does not consider that the entire model code system assumes regular updates to incorporate new knowledge in building science and technology.

This proposed approach undermines an established process to benefit special interests without adequate means to ensure minimum safety standards are met. It would not only be more complex, expensive, and inefficient than the current system, but it will stymie progress and lead to building failures during ordinary and catastrophic times alike. House Bill 1021 is a radical departure from the research-driven efforts to make building occupants safe at work, home, and play.

Please allow me to outline details of our position.

Lack of Public Benefit

Proponents have not defined a compelling public benefit to this bill. We believe this alone is adequate to justify a veto and avoid putting our citizenry at risk. House Bill 1021 will set Florida and our citizens on a path to weaker buildings and more expensive public and private insurance as the changes will foster certain degradation of our nationally-recognized building code system. This high public cost would be paid by Florida citizens to benefit only a small segment of one private interest group: the homebuilding industry.

Proponents suggest that they are overburdened with changes borne of regular three-year model code updates. However, we suggest that construction of a home requires that the utmost care be taken to stay current with academic research, scientific insights, and post-disaster engineering revelations. This is only possible on a steady and efficient basis through a systematic incorporation of the latest model codes that are the minimum life safety standards for construction.

For most families, the home is their largest investment and one that they expect will last. Preservation of the building code system that is in place ensures construction with durability, energy-efficiency, strength, and sustainability in mind. Indeed, a Wharton study last year of the Florida Building Code cited a $4.8 to $1 return on investment value.

No private interest should be allowed to take away this beneficial protection.

Economic Impact

Maintaining a healthy financial services industry environment is essential for the economic well-being and growth of our state. The current building code system with regular updates using model building codes provides the certainty that actuaries, analysts, insurers, modelers, rating agencies, and others rely upon when generating scores and other pricing factors for insurance as well as bonds and other financial products.

Removal of the assumption of complete, regular updates to our building codes using nationally-recognized and accepted model codes will remove the certainty that helps Florida earn the most favorable building code ratings. This is the essence of how House Bill 1021 will negatively impact budgets for Florida businesses and families.

Here are examples of how the new, uncertain, proposed system can impact Florida.

Private Property Insurance – Florida property owners receive an automatic “building code credit” for homes constructed after 2001. Credits can range up to 68% on the wind portion of the regular policy and the wind portion can be up to 50% or greater. This financial incentive is material to the annual cost of insurance and helps offset the high cost of living in our hurricane-prone state. For example, a Miami-Dade homeowner may pay $8,000 annually for insurance with the wind portion averaging 50% or $4,000. Applying the automatic Florida Building Code credit at 50% would put $2,000 in savings back in the family budget each year. This not only drives insurance affordability, but home ownership affordability overall.

This credit will likely be preserved for homes built after 2001, but the homes built one year, two years, or years beyond today can be affected adversely. Here’s why: while House Bill 1021 attempts to maintain the current wind provisions of the existing model code, the very locking of those provisions also blocks adoption of future innovations in high-wind construction. Conversely, the current system allows for continuous improvement in how we build through mandatory updates while the proposed system only guarantees “review” of potential changes one at a time. The system proposed in House Bill 1021 will undermine confidence and insurers may have a legitimate basis for reduction or eventual removal of the automatic Florida Building Code credit. Furthermore, once a wind event occurs, data will be available to prove the inferior performance of homes built under the new system. And once the data is in hand, the case for increased consumer cost through loss of credits will be difficult to overcome.

Florida’s recent experience with wildfires raises another scenario that demonstrates the importance of current building codes that are subject to continuous improvement through model code adoption. Nearly every disaster brings affirmation of successful building practices as well as identification of innovation opportunities. Those findings are built into future versions of model codes as the most reliable vehicle for incorporation of timely insights, engineering findings, new science, and innovation.

Under the current system, any insights would be assumed to be automatically incorporated into the Florida Building Code. Under the proposed system, each insight would be subject to either rejection, slower adoption, or incomplete incorporation.

Public Insurance/Flood Insurance – The Florida Floodplain Managers Association performed a detailed economic impact analysis of the original proposed legislation, Senate Bill 7000, and outlined the annual economic cost to Florida families who buy flood insurance. Because of the certainty of downgraded future Building Code Effectiveness Grading Schedule scores and ensuing reduced Community Rating Systems credit points, they project approximately $60 million in annual flood insurance discounts would be forfeited under the proposed system. Miami-Dade residents who buy flood insurance would lose $9.8 million in savings each year. Pinellas County residents would lose $7.8 million.

Why knowingly make flood insurance more expensive?

It is important to look to Florida’s history as we consider House Bill 1021. The current building code system came into existence after our state paid the price of construction growth without a reliable, certain system of building code adoption and enforcement. Florida’s families and businesses shouldered billion-dollar penalties for two decades of poor practices that led to systematic building failures during Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Ironically, it has taken almost two decades to recover. Further, some would assert that while our insurance availability is healed, private property insurance affordability is still a challenge in our state.

Is it wise to weaken Florida’s attractiveness to those placing their capital and confidence here?

Lack of Efficacy

House Bill 1021 includes language that states that the Florida Building Commission will take affirmative steps to use all updates necessary to maintain eligibility for FEMA disaster relief dollars. However, new and proposed FEMA policies complicate the means of maintaining eligibility.

Reliance on model codes is explicit in FEMA’s Disaster Risk Reduction Minimum Codes and Standards (FEMA Policy 204-078-2) and Public Assistance Required Minimum Standards Policy (FEMA Recovery Policy FP-104-009-4). Additionally, the proposed Deductible for FEMA’s Public Assistance Program includes potential credits toward the deductible requirement through actions such as adopting standardized and enhanced building codes. House Bill 1021 could jeopardize Florida’s eligibility for federal aid in several respects.

Does House Bill 1021 require a new and separate process to attempt to meet FEMA requirements, an additional burden and complication? It seems that it does. Why not just adopt the model code and avoid wasting resources, time, and potentially post-disaster funds for Florida?

Ironically, the proponents of House Bill 1021 assert that the code adoption process today is unwieldy and bureaucratic. How does the new proposed system change anything if a comprehensive review, without the structure and consensus-based model code provisions to guide the process, is still necessary?

The Florida Building Commission lacks timely access to building science innovation, sufficient personnel, and adequate resources to approximate the national model code development process, and the bill does not provide resources to overcome this challenge.

As a result, Florida’s building code system will fall behind.


We oppose this harmful legislation as it takes Florida backward to an inferior system that will leave families and communities at unnecessary physical and financial risk. Decades of history indicate that our state must maintain a compulsory update system based on model codes, or risk a return to a patchwork system of unequal construction standards and inferior, poor quality homes. The system we have had since the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew relies on the accepted, consensus-based standards, while still permitting Florida-specific changes.

Our national organization was founded in Florida 19 years ago to help advance disaster resilience. Since that time, Florida has created a world class, nationally-recognized building code system to ensure the safety and prosperity of its citizens. There are no shortcuts to safe construction, and it is our sincere hope that you will veto House Bill 1021 to preserve our progress and protect our future.

Respectfully submitted,

Leslie Chapman-Henderson


The Case for Preserving Florida’s Building Code System