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.

A Multi-hazard World Means Buildings Must Multitask

5-18-15 Matthew Wall for LCH Blog

When we think of traditional Texas perils, high wind, hail, hurricanes and wildfires are top of mind. But, as Texas has gone from one earthquake “felt” in 100 years to more than 70 in the last ten, awareness is shifting to include seismic events too.

In fact, a recent USGS report identifies 17 areas within eight states with increased rates of induced seismicity.

That’s why we asked Dr. Michael Blanpied of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to join us for our March 31 Texas State Collaborative (TSC) meeting in Austin where he very capably addressed the issue of “potentially induced seismicity”, and seismic activity in general.

Dr. Blanpied explained how USGS creates and updates seismic hazard maps every six years. This is essential information as seismic design ratings used for building codes are based on these maps. Through the 2008 hazard map update, earthquakes caused by industrial practices were removed from the analysis if certain conditions were met. This eliminated most earthquakes associated with mining, oil and gas production, and fluid injection. This was deemed to be the appropriate approach for designing long-term building codes, so now USGS is developing models to forecast the extent of hazardous ground shaking in the areas of recorded, significant, increased seismic activity.

A final hazard model is scheduled for release at the end of 2015.

We had a vivid reminder of the relevance of Dr. Blanpied’s presentation on May 7 when a 4.0 magnitude earthquake occurred 30 miles southwest of Dallas in Johnson County. In the aftermath of this earthquake, the Texas Railroad Commission required the operators of nearby disposal wells to perform testing regarding the effect of wastewater injection into subsurface rock formations. Thankfully, the earthquake caused no injuries, but it did cause minor damage to the foundation of two mobile homes.

And Texas isn’t the only state to experience increased seismicity. The Oklahoma Geologic Survey identified 5,415 earthquakes in 2014, and this tally omits many smaller earthquakes. The Central U.S. has seen a hundred-fold increase in earthquakes to the extent that Oklahoma now exceeds California in earthquake activity. Yes, you read that right.

This issue is driving complex scientific and social questions, especially as credible studies have now linked seismic activity to wastewater injection. However, our focus is not on causation, but whether or not the built environment is prepared regardless of causation.

Our TSC initiative is dedicated to helping Texas address shortcomings in the existing building code system, so do we now add earthquake to the mix? If so, where do we begin?

We are confronting a compounding natural hazard problem, but we cannot take our focus off the traditional perils either. The same evening of the 4.0 magnitude earthquake on May 7 in North Texas, at least two confirmed tornadoes touched down with severe weather continuing into the weekend.

This example represents a growing challenge facing disaster resilience advocates across the globe: what is the ideal mix of building science to address earthquake, high wind, and hail too?

The issue came up last year during our public awareness work with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. Like Texas, Virginia has a coastline vulnerable to hurricanes, and residents have experienced deadly high-wind events, including tornadoes and the 2012 Derecho. In 2011, they experienced a 5.8 magnitude earthquake in Mineral that is considered the “most widely felt earthquake in U.S. history”. Even so, high wind is still the most common concern. That’s why we worked to identify a “two-for-one” building science solution to drive our messaging.

This video is the result of our effort and highlights what families can do to mitigate against both high wind and earthquakes. It is focused on one concept—a continuous load path, or a well-connected home where the roof ties to walls and walls tie to the foundation. The building principle is not new, but talking about it for high wind and seismic safety in the same conversation is atypical.

Texas and Virginia share a similar challenges regarding the need for integrated hazard mitigation solutions, and they are not alone. With or without induced seismicity, earthquakes can occur nearly anywhere. The same goes for high wind.

This uncertainty increases our resolve to find solutions that work for every location. We must build in a way that adequately addresses risks, even when they overlap. Delivering on multi-hazard mitigation solutions will challenge the disaster-resilience community, but we have the right team in place.

Let’s give families options that fit their reality even if it’s complicated.

The Only Thing Worse Than No Mitigation is the Wrong Mitigation

LCH Blog Photo

After decades of effort, the marketplace for tornado safe rooms and shelters is finally rising. Consider that more than 3,000 tornado shelter permits have been issued in the City of Moore, Oklahoma since the March 25 tornado outbreak, and officials project that 7,800 Moore homes (40%) now have the essential safety feature.

Success here can be traced to relentless commitment to perfecting the building science by visionaries like FLASH Leadership Partner Dr. Ernst Kiesling and the FEMA Building Science team; strategic messaging by our many partners including the NSSA; and cost/benefit studies by noted economists like Dr. Kevin Simmons of Austin College.

The progress is significant, but enter the next challenge. Safe rooms aren’t as prevalent as they should be throughout all vulnerable areas yet, and not all tornado safe rooms are created equal.

So now that the market is responding, we must reemphasize the message that safe rooms and shelters should be constructed or fabricated to the most modern, stringent guidance or standards of either FEMA P-320, P-361 or ICC/NSSA 500. A nonconforming, poorly constructed safe room can do more harm than good by creating a false sense of security and putting families at risk.

For this reason, we took the opportunity at the 2015 NAHB International Builders Show “Home Safe Home Showcase” with our Legacy Partners FEMA and Portland Cement Association (PCA) to ask the questions that families want answered. The video series provides an overview of five types of safe rooms that can be built during new construction or added to an existing structure above-ground, below-ground, inside the home, outside in the garage, or in the yard.

Builders at the show were pleasantly surprised to learn that most types of safe rooms can be installed and completed in a day with the average cost for an 8-by-8-foot room from $8,000 to $9,500. Each offers different advantages, but all—when built right—provide the best available life safety protection against tornadoes. And it is essential that we point out the need to use a tested door.

One family knows firsthand the value of a safe room. Kevin and Sarabeth Harrison survived the deadly April 27, 2011 tornado that descended upon Athens, Alabama, by taking refuge in their concrete-block safe room with their two young children. The Harrisons have since moved to another home, installed another type of safe room, and have had to take shelter in that safe room during a tornado warning. We captured their inspirational story in our A Tale of Two Homes – Tornado, and it went viral, all the way to the National Building Museum “Designing for Disaster” exhibit.

Since then, the myth that there is nothing you can do to protect against a tornado has been under siege by accurate, life-saving information that a safe room is the right place to weather a tornado.

As stories of disaster survival often do, the Harrison video helps people understand that they can survive. Our new video series will help families understand exactly how to do it.

We Can Build Better in Advance of Tornadoes

In light of last night’s deadly tornadoes in Illinois, I am raising (again) the issue of building in tornado zones using the new, groundbreaking construction philosophy that emerged after the catastrophic Tuscaloosa, Joplin and Moore outbreaks from recent years. The engineering case is strong, and last week Dr. Kevin Simmons, an Austin College economist, added to the economic case as well – http://bit.ly/1auWHdu.

Clearly, it is time to spread the word to leaders that by adding $1 per square foot to the cost of construction and incorporating tornado safe rooms to homes in high-wind zones, we can forever alter the deadly pattern of death and destruction that follow the annual, typical tornado outbreaks that will continue.

Below are excerpts from our May 2013 paper, “Building Codes: The Foundation for Resilience” that describe the engineering breakthrough.

For more than three years, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) building science engineers, and leading academic researchers have called for a new way of building to meet the challenge of saving lives while also preserving property in the face of tornado outbreaks. Their work, published as the Dual-Objective-Based Tornado Design Philosophy, is landmark in that it defies traditional assertions that “there is nothing you can affordably build to withstand tornadoes.”[1]

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 Dr. David O. Prevatt, Associate Professor of the University of Florida, Department of Civil and Coastal Engineering, “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 novel new approach is buoyed by the finding by the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) that even if a tornado is EF-4 or EF-5, 95 percent of the damage generated occurs at EF-3 and below. What this means is that the 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 like those included in the code can save lives and dramatically improve building performance in nearly every tornado event.

We believe that 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. Thus, 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.

In January of 2015, during the International Builders Show, we analyzed and released updated NOAA Storm Prediction Center data showing that nearly 90% of U.S. counties experience tornado watches. This information underscores the point that the impact of building differently is not just beneficial to those who are directly hit by tornadoes. Having a stronger home and a safe room will bring beneficial peace of mind to all in harm’s way as they hunker down, worry, and wonder if their town will be next.

 [1] Van de Lindt, John W., et al. 2013. “Dual-Objective-Based Tornado Design Philosophy.” Available: http://ascelibrary.org/doi/abs/10.1061/%28ASCE%29ST.1943-541X.0000622

Youth Preparedness Takes Center Stage—White House Style

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In January, I had the great honor of anchoring a delegation of FLASH partners to participate in a White House recognition ceremony celebrating the National Strategy for Youth Preparedness Education.

FEMA launched the initiative in September of 2014 with a goal to bring children into the disaster-safety movement through innovative programs like America’s PrepareAthon!; the American Red Cross Pillowcase Project; and several of our own, including StormStruck: A Tale of Two Homes® at INNOVENTIONS at Epcot® at the Walt Disney World® Resort.

This was not a first-time award or recognition for StormStruck, but it is especially meaningful to us as some considered the project quite risky before opening in 2008. Not everyone shared our vision of using the proven Disney formula for “edu-tainment” to carry the message of disaster-safety and mitigation to guests of all ages. Some doubted that StormStruck could leverage storytelling to empower future generations to prepare and choose resilient structures. Some even considered tackling disaster topics in an entertainment venue inappropriate, not serious enough.

But we were confident. We had committed partners. And we were right.

Millions of happy guests later, we realized we had created something extraordinary—and not just for the kids. Visitors from around the globe, including disaster victims, have come through our 4D storm, played our dynamic rebuilding game, and enjoyed the myriad show elements. And periodic guest surveys demonstrate that they not only get the point of the venue, but they want everyone in harm’s way to come, learn, and enjoy.

Think about it. As parents, we know that our children can influence our decision-making about everything from where to grocery shop to social-change movements. Consider the generation of children who grew up recycling and the impact on the green movement. It’s a two-way formula. Our kids wear seat belts, and eschew cigarette smoking. We could hardly do differently.

In FEMA’s Preparedness in America report, household survey findings indicate that “households with school children who brought home preparedness materials were significantly more likely to report preparing than those who did not receive materials: they were 75 percent more likely to have a household plan they had discussed as a family, and twice as likely to have participated in a home drill.”

One way or another, our kids influence our behavior, and that makes a focus on youth preparedness doubly effective.

Before I joined the disaster-safety movement, I had the privilege to work with highway safety advocates on issues from bicycle helmets to drunk-driving prevention. One day, I learned firsthand how even incidental messaging can affect children. My daughter was about four years old, and frequently accompanied me to safety events. One day right after I had put her in her car seat to head out, I got behind the wheel and picked up my can of Tab (years before Diet Coke). All of a sudden, I heard a little voice from the back say, “Mommy, don’t drink and drive!”

I was amazed. For just a moment, I considered trying to explain the difference between alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages, but immediately abandoned the idea. I realized that she had gotten a safety message, embraced it, and was going to share it. I said, “Okay of course,” threw away the soda and drove on.

The experience reinforced for me the power and responsibility we have when messaging to children. In my work since then, I have learned that unlike the scare tactics of the past, today’s successful initiatives put children and adults alike in charge of safety and resilience by engaging without frightening. In true Disney style, we make them the hero.

According to FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, “Children who learn about emergency preparedness experience less anxiety during an actual emergency or disaster. This National Strategy will encourage communities and organizations to give children and their families the information they need to prepare for disasters.”

FEMA has it figured out. Youth preparedness isn’t just about youth. Young people both learn and teach.

And if we’re smart, we will remain their students.

The Latest Addition to Our Resilience Heroes Ranks: Max Mayfield—battle-tested weather-safety warrior, and 2015 Weatherperson of the Year

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I thought that writing a post about Max Mayfield would be straightforward because I’ve had the privilege of working with him as a FLASH Leadership Partner for more than 15 years. But in the course of preparing to celebrate him as 2015 National Weatherperson of the Year, I realized that there is so much to say about Max that it is difficult in a short narrative like this.

A Tweet about him might go something like this:

Max Mayfield. Jimmy Stewart/John Wayne mash-up. Kind, principled, yet unwavering. Soft spoken lifesaver of millions. #proven

That’s the short version. Let me also add what is indisputably in the record.

Max is a model husband, father, grandfather, and scientist. During his seven years as National Hurricane Center (NHC) Director, he saved millions of lives by combining his caring, trusted voice with excellent forecasting. His leadership helped guide those in harm’s way, especially during the unprecedented 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons with dangerous and devastating hurricanes like Charley and Katrina. Think lighthouse in a storm. That is Max.

He is revered by his friends and colleagues as a kind, consummate professional, generous mentor, and steadfast advocate for those in the meteorology profession, as well as the profession itself. Many lined up to provide tributes for his recognition as the 2015 National Weatherperson of the Year, including leaders like Former Governor Jeb Bush who worked closely with Max throughout those tough seasons and Governor Mary Fallin from his home state of Oklahoma.

You can view a video highlight reel from the evening here where former CNN Miami Bureau Chief John Zarrella characterized Max’s legacy in modern terms, “How many of you have a Jeopardy question about you? How many have your own App?” (He is now a Hurricane Specialist at WPLG-10 Miami and they have an app called the “Max Tracker”. It has nearly 98,000 downloads. Impressive!)

Here’s how he’s made a difference in the disaster-safety and resilience movement worldwide.

Max was the first NHC Director to formally join us in 2004 to support our cause of protecting families and homes through more resilient building codes and practices. His trusted voice was a game changer for us. He went beyond his traditional role of predicting hurricanes, and used his high profile to advance the idea that property protection isn’t the sole responsibility of government or insurers. He helped leaders and families understand that they can and should make decisions to achieve safety and protect homes simultaneously.

He has supported many of our most important projects, including the Blueprint for Safety, Tale of Two Homes: Hurricane Charley, our Disney experience StormStruck: A Tale of Two Homes, and our own weather app FLASH Wx Alerts. He contributes to our policy forums and annual conferences; has co-published with us on topics like flood safety and much, much more. His presence injects credibility and draws high-value support for the cause.

I am sure you can see why we have selected Max Mayfield as the 2015 National Weatherperson of the Year. He was the clear choice, and can now add our recognition to a list of dozens, including ABC Television Network’s “Person of the Week”; Government Communicator of the Year by the National Association of Government Communicators (NAGC); Presidential Rank Award for Meritorious Service and countless more listed here.

So Max, we look forward to continuing our work with you as we advocate for storm safety and structure resiliency—a cause for which you sounded one of the earliest and loudest trumpets. Meanwhile, please accept our heartfelt congratulations and know that we are #evergrateful.