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. 

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.