It’s Time to Take a Modern Approach to Building in Tornado-Prone Areas

With the recent violent weather outbreak this weekend causing more tornado deaths in one weekend than the yearlong 2016 total, I am once again raising the issue of better building in tornado zones. First published in 2013, the Dual-Objective-Based Tornado Design Philosophy, defies traditional assertions that there is nothing you can affordably build to withstand tornadoes. Those rebuilding in the aftermath of the devastating storms have affordable options to protect their homes and families from future events.

This revolutionary engineering design concept emerged after Tuscaloosa, Joplin, and Moore tornado investigations. Adding $1 per square foot to the cost of construction to improve structural performance for property protection and incorporating tornado safe rooms for essential life safety can alter the pattern of death and destruction we continue to suffer. This weekend’s tragedy is more evidence that it is time to embrace a better way of building.

As noted in our paper, “Building Codes: The Foundation for Resilience” the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Building Science engineers, and leading academic researchers have called for a way of building to meet the challenge of saving lives while also preserving property in the face of tornado outbreaks.

The research-informed effort comes in response to field investigations that documented a pattern of disproportionate structure collapse in tornado outbreaks. They point out how even small design changes can make a difference, and they have developed guidelines to estimate the tornado-induced loads. This will provide reasonable targets for designers to use in their future work. Homes built to these newer, research-informed guidelines will have the advantage of better wall bracing, improved roof tie-downs, and overall stronger connections.

According to the newly released January 21-22 Southeastern U.S. Tornado Outbreak Report, published by the Wind Hazard Damage Assessment Group (WHDAG) of the University of Florida, the widespread catastrophic failures are not of themselves failures of engineering, but they are the inevitable result of policies that ignore tornado loads from minimum building design standards. It will be up to the populations in our communities (neighborhoods, towns, states) to decide whether to follow the lead of Moore, OK and implement tornado-resilient building codes in the future.

Dr. David O. Prevatt, Associate Professor of the University of Florida, Department of Civil and Coastal Engineering states, “If we can put a man on the moon, we can keep a roof on a house, and our research demonstrates it is possible to design and build houses that protect people and structures from deadly winds. Techniques developed and implemented in Florida that have reduced hurricane losses can be applied and used in houses to also reduce tornado losses.”

This approach is buoyed by the finding by the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) that 95 percent of tornado damage occurs at EF-3 and below. Accordingly, the Dual-Objective-Based Tornado Design Philosophy enhanced practices can bring material increases in home strength. Moreover, since 90 percent of all tornadoes never exceed EF-2 with winds of up to 135 mph, wind-resistant building practices can dramatically improve building performance in nearly every tornado event.

This is possibly one of the most important breakthroughs in high-wind design during the past two decades, as it offers an affordable innovation that can potentially improve life safety and economic well-being for millions of residents throughout the U.S.

Homes are a long-term investment. Eighty percent of our homes are more than 20 years old, and most of them will be around for at least another 30 years. Therefore, it’s important not only for individual families to make careful choices now as they rebuild, but each community must acknowledge its responsibility to rebuild in a resilient way.

As East Coast Marks Five-Year Earthquake Anniversary, Experts Across the U.S. Advance the Cause

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Today is the five-year anniversary of the 5.8M earthquake near Mineral, Virginia—the most widely felt quake in U.S. history, with shaking from New England to Chicago. The temblor damaged heritage buildings including the National Cathedral and Washington Monument, and shook up public perceptions of earthquake geography at the same time.

Since then, leaders have advanced policies that reflect their understanding that seismic risk is a national problem, not just a West Coast concern. One shining example is the new seismic standard for federal buildings showcased by the White House during a resilience summit in February of this year. The Executive Order creating the new standard effectively decreed that government should “walk the talk” with respect to stronger building codes by ensuring that public structures reflect current codes too.

While logical, this was not an easy task, and we applaud those that led the charge.

Also encouraging, there is now progress in the development of a U.S.-based Earthquake Early Warning (EEW) system as well. This is essential as just five to seven seconds of notice before an earthquake could prevent trains from derailing. The EEW system can trigger automatic closure of elevator doors, prevent fire station doors from jamming (trapping needed response vehicles), and it can lower crossing gates for bridges too.

These actions could mean the difference between life and death for thousands in a seismic event.

Equally important, sustained efforts are ongoing to remind those in regions like Western Tennessee, part of the greater New Madrid Seismic Zone, that earthquakes pose a real danger. Credible experts believe that catastrophic loss of life and property in Memphis would most certainly be compounded by global business interruption when the ground there rumbles once again.

I’ve written in this blog before about Memphis, and in our commentary series as well. Thirty percent of all U.S. goods flow through there each year. It is the location of the world’s second busiest cargo airport, and center of the FedEx Express global headquarters. Imagine the worldwide commerce disruption when the movement of packages and shipments stops, even for a day.

So as you can see, we’ve made real progress on earthquake safety and resilience during the past five years, but we have much more to do.

With that in mind, our organization led an elite array of partners and sponsors this May to present the quadrennial 2016 National Earthquake Conference (NEC) and address this question, What’s New, What’s Next, What’s Your Role in Building a National Strategy?

Together, we drew more than 350 global experts on the scientific and practical challenges wrought by earthquakes, tsunamis, and catastrophic risk in general. And the response from the gathered academics, analysts, businesses, communicators, elected officials, emergency managers, engineers, experts, insurers, journalists, modelers, product manufacturers, psychologists, responders, scientists, and volunteers was tremendous. These individuals participated because they share our dread of what will happen when the next “big one” hits.

You can feel the sense of urgency in this brief video.

The NEC drew an impressive array of journalists and news organizations as well, including the BBC, Los Angeles Times, Time Magazine and many more. As they took their seats, our first keynote speaker, Dr. Tom Jordan of USC Southern California Earthquake Center (global headquarters of the Great ShakeOut earthquake drill) answered the question, What’s New? with a presentation of new science showing how the South San Andreas fault is “locked, loaded, and ready to roll.”

He explained through vivid maps and visuals how we are not just due, but overdue, for a major earthquake there.

We anticipated news media interest in the conference, and Dr. Jordan’s presentation ensured it. After award-winning Los Angeles Times Reporter Ron Lin posted this riveting article about Dr. Jordan’s briefing, an explosion of national and international news headlines followed. “Locked, loaded, and ready to roll” dominated the national news dialogue for days and weeks to come.

Mr. Lin’s article sharpened audience attention (in-person and virtual) as the rest of us went on to highlight best practices and challenges in building codes, communication, emergency management, outreach, policy, product innovation, research, and science.

Ten days later, the Los Angeles Times reported that Governor Jerry Brown planned to infuse the EEW system with $10 million in state dollars. This was a departure from the California governor’s previous position. Next, Congressman Adam Schiff voiced his intention to rekindle his effort to get Oregon and Washington state leaders to support the EEW system.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, congressional leaders signaled active support for National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program (NEHRP) reauthorization. This is critical as NEHRP is the foundation for essential research that can advance breakthroughs like EEW systems, as well as seismic safety and resilience overall.

The 2016 NEC generated productive policy momentum that complements decades of work by the earthquake community, and experts like Dr. Lucy Jones. Today, as we recall the earthquake that emanated from rural Virginia five years ago, we must accept that earthquakes could happen nearly anywhere and, we must be ready when they do.

(Editor’s note: The preliminary media impact report from the 2016 National Earthquake Conference is available here. The full report and edited videos of program will be available later this year.)

When Legislators Forget About Building Codes, Hurricane Amnesia is Officially Here

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The Florida Building Codes enacted, enhanced, and consistently updated since the devastating building failures of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 are considered a national standard for excellence in high-wind construction.

So, when our advocacy partners sent up an “all hands alert” just two weeks before the close of the Florida Legislative session, we were shocked to learn that the Florida Building Code was under assault. Someone, apparently a Florida Home Builders Association representative, had convinced a few legislators that it would be good idea to extend the update cycle for the entire state’s code from a three-year to a six-year cycle.

They attempted this by adding an amendment added to Committee Substitute #2 on House Bill 535, stating: 

553.73 Florida Building Code.— 

 (7)(a) The commission, by rule adopted pursuant to ss.120.536 (1) and 120.54, shall update the Florida Building Code every 6 3 years.

This was done quietly as the bill headed to its last committee, and then off to the House floor. Senate Bill 704 was set to follow the same route. It’s important to note that often when legislation is made quietly and at the last minute, it’s because the action cannot hold up under public scrutiny. Or, as we like to say in Florida, it can’t survive the sunshine.

And such was the case here.

I’ve written about this growing issue before here in this blog, as well as in our paper, Disaster Resilience Rising Means the Time is Right.

The three-year cycle is used by Florida, and most states, because it follows the International Code Council development process of new model codes crafted through consensus on a three-year, recurring cycle. Even so, there is often an administrative tail on the final adoption. Regardless, when we adopt and enforce the newest building codes, our building practices stay current with new products, science innovation, and post-disaster insights.

Yet some states and jurisdictions, like Minnesota and North Carolina, have elongated code adoption from three to six, or even nine years. These extended code cycles not only leave citizens without the benefit of current model building codes, but also impede the disaster safety movement goal to rapidly incorporate beneficial, post-disaster findings into model codes.

Opponents of timely adoption have convinced some lawmakers that there is no harm in switching from a three-year to a longer, six-year update cycle. They argue that it provides a cost savings with no offsetting harm to the overall construction in those states.

But they could not be more wrong. Here is how we made our case to the Florida press:

Stalling the timely adoption of the newest building code represents a backward step for construction, design, innovation, and disaster resilience overall with negative impacts across many fronts.

1. Families will be denied the latest insights and advances in construction technology and the benefits of innovation and advances that deliver savings across energy, fire and other cost drivers (ordinary water losses and/or catastrophic losses). For example, this will put essential code enhancements for flood resistance on hold.

2. The excellent building code policy record in Florida is one of the most important supports for the often-stressed property insurance system. This type of policy setback could have devastating effects on the delicate balance that has been so hard won post-Andrew.

3. The El Niño year has already delivered the projected tornadic and high wind events. The expected La Niña could bring similarly heightened activity. Further, many credible meteorology professionals suggest strong potential for a hurricane season reminiscent of the 2004-2005 activity level.

Shortly after the news spread of these amendments altering the Florida building code cycle from three to six years, the effort was abandoned. And, we are very relieved that it failed. But we should all be wary. If any Florida Legislator can be convinced that we don’t need to maintain current building codes in the most high-risk hurricane state, then we are not only forgetting history, but we are dooming ourselves to repeat it.

With this in mind, we’ve launched a new initiative, #HurricaneStrong, to help remind the public, leaders, and families alike, that we must remain vigilant to remain disaster resilient. I hope you’ll join us.

Ideas, Inspiration, and Innovation: Report on the 2016 FLASH Annual Conference

2016 AC Leadership PhotoOrganizing an annual conference every year is a mammoth undertaking for an organization of our size, but it is one of the most important aspects to our work because it delivers such unique value. In our movement, most conferences bring together attendees with a common profession, like engineers, floodplain managers, or meteorologists. Many revolve around a common hazard, like the National Earthquake Conference or the National Hurricane Conference.

But ours is different. Our common thread is our shared mission, “Strengthening homes and safeguarding families from disasters of all kinds.” In today’s language, it’s all about resilience.

So we bring together more than 150 different professions from architects and engineers to futurists and journalists. We focus on all hazards from earthquakes to wildfires. We gain insights from policy leadership and hurricane hunting to risk communication research.

And throughout, we are inspired. We share the dedication of our building code allies as we fight to advance the quality of structures across the U.S., and now the globe. We celebrate product innovation that delivers durable buildings, affordably.

And after 18 years of nearly annual gatherings, the Conference is still our most essential event as it energizes us all. We come together, celebrate our progress, overcome challenges, and remember that we have accomplished a great deal already. This gathering was the incubator for the once crazy notion/now award-winning Disney edu-tainment collaboration, StormStruck: A Tale of Two Homes. Many other breakthrough ideas were born here, just this way.

All of this is why one of my favorite duties each year is reviewing the Conference wrap-up report and video reel that we are sending out today. In them, you can feel the excitement and positivity of our speakers, and you can experience the sincerity of the champions who fight for a more resilient world every day.

For my part, I can’t help but marvel at how it has all grown. In the beginning, we simply wanted to get a group around the table. Now, we convene the “Davos” of the resilience movement. And we are truly humbled to do so.

Plans are underway for 2017, and we hope to see you there. In the meantime, enjoy the report and remember the words of Henry Ford, “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.” Yes it is.

Even As the Ground Shakes Near Memphis, Leaders Chose Denial Over Disaster Safety

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Photo Credit: WBIR

Last week, I used this forum to discuss the first of our six recommendations to innovate the U.S. building code system published in our new commentary, Disaster Resilience Rising Means the Time is Right. This week, I am scheduled to discuss our second recommendation:

2. Optimize property protection opportunities in model   code and standard development by balancing all of the existing values, including public health, safety, and welfare.

This is a timely discussion in light of action underway at the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission where it is clear that some Tennessee officials are missing the critical linkage between public policy and disaster safety.

The purpose of the International Residential Code is “to establish minimum requirements to safeguard the public safety, health and general welfare….” Unfortunately, the issue of cost is often the loudest argument against the adoption of modern building codes. But the welfare of the family, or families, during the expected lifespan of a home should be given equal weight in building code considerations.

Today, however, the upfront cost to the builder or first buyer has eclipsed the critical, long-term value of welfare.

And this is exactly the problem in Memphis and Shelby County, where city council members and county commissioners are poised to complete passage of amendments that will further weaken home bracing requirements by as much as 50 percent.

Some background: In 2014, after decades of delay, these same leaders implemented a compromise that required modern earthquake bracing for the first time. However, that compromise fell short of the model code by about 30 percent, allowing homebuilders to construct homes below the suggested levels of minimum, national life-safety codes.

Now they are moving to further reduce requirements essential for safety in not just earthquakes, but floods, and high winds. They are suggesting short-term cost savings as a justification for this eye-popping action, ignoring long-term home quality.

They are also placing unknowing families in potentially deadly jeopardy.

According to news reports, Councilman Reid Hedgepeth constructed a $750,000 home last summer, and identified the cost for seismic requirements at about $10,000, or 1.33% of the total construction cost. By his support of the new amendments, are he and his peers (including Councilman Jim Strickland) saying that a one percent savings is worth the risk that a home will collapse in an earthquake, float away in a flood, or tear apart in a windstorm?

This latest Memphis situation is another incident in a long-running back and forth between local homebuilder interests and a coalition of academics, architects, emergency managers, engineers, risk communicators, safety advocates, and scientific researchers. The coalition has gone to extraordinary lengths to work with local builders and elected officials by providing extensive, third-party studies to overcome the fears of undue cost; by bringing forth national experts with unassailable building science performance data to explain the value of the new building practices; and much more.

Even after all this sincere effort, and a 3.5 magnitude earthquake next door in Tipton County this week, local leaders are still willing to abandon the needed upgrades.

Last August, the South Napa Valley earthquake provided proof positive of phenomenal building performance driven by use of the new model codes. Sadly, Memphis and Shelby County have gone barely a year with their improved code, and soon they will again build in a way that is certain to fall short when the worst happens there.

According to the Oxford dictionary, welfare is defined as, “the health, happiness, and fortunes of a person or a group.”

With the amendments close to passage, all we are left to do is etch the names of the officials involved into the public record. That way, when the worst happens, we can recognize the path to diminished “health, happiness, and fortunes” for residents of Western Tennessee. 

Exploring Innovative Intersections of Building Codes and Resilience

Last week, we released our latest building code commentary, Disaster Resilience Rising Means the Time is Right with six recommendations for how to innovate the current U.S. building code system.

So in our next six blog posts, we are going to examine each of our recommendations, one by one, with an eye on how to take each of these ideas forward. Our first recommendation is to:

  1. “Establish a standing code and standard development process to accelerate post-catastrophe, forensic engineering insights into model codes and standards.”

In the Commentary, we highlighted different organizations that investigate post-disaster building performance. We discussed the myriad scientific and technical stakeholders in the building realm, with a focus on FEMA’s Mitigation Assessment Team (MAT)—the signature body that diagnoses building performance and failure causes after major U.S. disasters. Once we understand the MAT and similar systems, along with historic building failure findings, it becomes clear that these investigations are essential to future building performance in deadly, costly catastrophes.

Our recommendation is simple. It proposes an enhancement of the current post-disaster building “crash investigation” system by establishing a standing mechanism to accelerate incorporation of building performance findings into model building codes. The current International Code Council development process creates model building codes on three year cycles. We would like to see disaster insights incorporated into the building codes more rapidly than three years, so that minimum construction standards reflect the costly lessons learned from disaster without delay.

It is important to note that not all post-disaster insights are fashioned into codes from the top down. Often, as in Florida post-Andrew and New York post-Sandy, local and state officials update codes with ground-up disaster insights. But this means that only those affected areas benefit from those costly lessons. Why not use model codes to ensure the lessons benefit a larger population? Either way, whether through national model code development or from local amendments, prompt integration of improved building practices into building codes is an essential way to ensure such failures only happen once.

Thanks to dedicated engineers and scientists, we already do an excellent job of analyzing the successes and failures of building performance after earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and even wildfires. And the faster we integrate these costly insights into the way we build, the better off we will all be because deadly lessons learned once shouldn’t be learned twice.

We look forward to working with our partners at the International Code Council to fast track these lessons to benefit all in harm’s way.

2015 Florida Mayor’s Resilience Symposium: Local Leaders Rising to Meet the Wicked Problem of Resilience

frDuring the summer of 2012, I delivered a workshop on disaster mitigation as part of the Florida League of Mayors/League of Cities Annual Conference. I always reflect after a speaking engagement, and while I perceived that the audience was interested, I wasn’t sure I generated “edge of the seat” engagement. Understandably, Mayors are constantly balancing a long list of important priorities, and presenters just like me are always competing for their attention.

Fast forward to the summer of 2014 when I spoke again at the same conference. The audience was not only engaged, but they were on their feet. Mayor Ashton Hayward of Pensacola told us about wind mitigation retrofit programs. Mayor Sam Ferreri, an architect by profession, detailed flood mitigation infrastructure projects in his Palm Beach County community of Greenacres. All present joined the discussion of sea level rise impacts and the bipartisan South Florida Climate Action Pledge.

So what changed from 2012 to 2014? Clearly, resilience had “arrived”. Indeed, it had moved to the top of the long list of mayoral “to do’s”.

To keep the momentum going following the 2014 conference, we forged an official partnership with the Florida League of Mayors to advance our shared commitment to resilience. During May of this year, we convened the first Florida Mayors Resilience Symposium where we connected our groups and delivered a day-long program of information on disaster and climate resiliency from all angles.

In my talk, I outlined the essential elements for strong, safe, and resilient communities. Namely: strong, well-enforced codes and standards; consumers and leaders who understand, value, and demand stronger, safer buildings; higher education that includes building codes and mitigation; incentives (insurance, real estate, and tax); innovators in all sectors; and research—building, social science, and more.

I shared my conviction formed from more than 17 years in this movement that Mayors hold a powerful key. They can make the case for policies that prepare their constituents for the future. They can open (or close) the doors to adoption of modern, model building codes, and the resources necessary for enforcement of same. They can give voice to resilience as a top priority in their communities because, like politics, all disasters are local.

Federal and state governments can provide resources to communities to increase resilience beforehand, and they certainly provide resources for recovery after the fact. But the communities that are truly resilient take ownership and make it a priority to put all the pieces together ahead of time in a way that is unique to its culture, history, and values.

That is why mayors are the MVPs on the team for climate and disaster resilience.

We saw evidence of this during Ft. Myers’ Mayor Randall Henderson’s symposium presentation. He shared their waterside development plan that incorporated flood maps, evacuation zone maps, and more. Clearly, their planning incorporated insights from our friends at NOAA.

We also heard a passionate call to action from former county commissioner/now Florida State Representative Kristin Jacobs who riveted the gathering with her clarity on sea level rise and linkage between disaster and climate resilience.

This groundswell of local leadership, along with impressive initiatives to measure and quantify resilience driven by federal resources, is creating excitement and commitment that we need to advance our shared cause. However, we still need all sectors to commit and participate.

Joe Tankersley of Unique Visions, a futurist, former Walt Disney Imagineer, and member of our board of directors led the closing dialogue at the symposium and introduced resilience as a “wicked problem” requiring foresight and strategic decisions. The term “wicked problem” was popularized in the 1973 article Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, and it “refers to a complex problem for which there is no simple method of solution.” [Financial Times http://www.ft.com/home/us]

We agree with Joe. There is no better term when discussing the issue of resilience, and we need continue to create innovative, multi-discipline solutions to achieve our desired goals. So as we expand our partnership with the Florida League of Mayors to mayors across the nation, we will continue to listen to local challenges and needs. We will develop information and tools to empower local leaders. And we will craft innovative solutions to disaster-safety barriers.

When we do this, we will continue our trek down this path to a world that not only survives disasters, but bounces back better than before.