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 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.

From Smartphones to Building Codes, Updating is Essential if You Want to Avoid a Crash

Last week, I participated in an International Code Council (ICC) Roundtable in Washington D.C. along with architects, code officials, emergency managers, engineers, fire chiefs, homebuilders, insurers, scientists, and standards developers. We gathered to discuss a growing and disturbing trend: skipping building code updates.

The ICC publishes new consensus-based, model codes every three years. New codes combine the latest knowledge into affordable, practical ways to make buildings safer and more resilient. But for some reason, states like North Carolina have decided to skip on-time adoption of the new codes. They will forego the next set of code improvements and only consider them every six years. Why? We see no good reason. It’s not as if North Carolina doesn’t get its fair share of dangerous weather—floods, hurricanes or tornadoes. Think about it. They just experienced Hurricane Arthur in July.

Building science experts learn a great deal about building performance or failure in the aftermath of natural disasters. That knowledge provides insights into how to update codes and standards to make homes and buildings safer. The general public may not realize this, but it takes several years for states and cities to adopt each new batch of regulations. If they skip one cycle, as North Carolina intends, they could find their safety guidelines for construction falling 8 to 10 years behind.

While code improvements can save lives, they only work if everyone treats it as a process of continual improvement. Imagine what would happen if you didn’t update the software system for your smartphone on schedule. Eventually, the operating system will fail and the phone won’t work properly.

But the act of updating is even more important in building codes because, right or wrong, the codes are only meant to provide insights for the worst structure allowable by law. The code is not an ideal standard to reach for; it is the minimum level that must be maintained. And, if your home isn’t at least current to minimum standards, how well can it hold up to ordinary wear and tear, never mind severe weather? New code recommendations are not designed to create exorbitantly expensive structures that will last for centuries. They are intended to provide minimum life safety for occupants inside.

So it is much the same as the smartphone or any type of necessary information system. We may dread the hassle of downloading and understanding the updates because we are used to what we have. Change may be tough, but it is a fact of life.

Innovation ignored is advantage lost. And the public deserves to know.