Making the Link: Stronger Flood Building Standards Required for Federal Funds

On January 30, 2015, the President took a major step to increasing the flood resilience in this country by establishing a Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, which ties federal dollars to stronger flood construction standards. The concept is simple: if federal funds are spent, they should be invested in structures built to last and withstand flooding.

FEMA reports that approximately 85% of disaster declarations are due to flooding, and according to the White House, between 1980 and 2013, the U.S. incurred in excess of $260 billion in flood-related damages.

And the costs are increasing. Congressional hearing testimony by Chad Berginnis, Executive Director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, cited that flood losses have increased to average $10 billion per year.

But what parts of the country are at risk? Coastal areas seem to be the obvious answer. And more than 50 percent of Americans live or work in coastal counties.

But it’s not just coastal areas that should be flood ready and flood smart. Flooding affects the entire country.

While the Federal government insures structures for flood risk, some portion of damage incurred during flood events is not covered by insurance, and is then passed onto taxpayers. According to Congressional hearing testimony, insurance coverage from natural disaster losses is typically less than 20 percent of the total loss, and since 1983, the U.S. has spent nearly $1 trillion dollars on disaster recovery and rebuilding.

So what does this new flood standard require?

The standard requires the elevation of new buildings, roads, and other infrastructure, in and around floodplains, that are built or substantially repaired with Federal funding.

There are several ways to determine the required elevation: (1) build using “a climate-informed science approach that uses the best-available, actionable hydrologic and hydraulic data and methods that integrate current and future changes in flooding based on climate science”; (2) elevate by adding 2 feet to the base flood elevation for non-critical structures or 3 feet for critical structures; or (3) construct to the 500-year flood elevation.

Increasing freeboard, or the elevation of a structure above the base flood elevation, can result in drastic savings in the form of lessening property damage, as well as insurance discounts. The 2008 Supplement to the 2006 Evaluation of the National Flood Insurance Program’s Building Standards validated the 2006 publication’s general hypothesis of freeboard’s benefits to homeowners and communities. This report provides information regarding NFIP premiums and construction costs as they correlate to different amounts of freeboard.

Dedicated professionals in Federal agencies have been working together over the past year to develop these standards to increase our country’s resilience to flood-related disaster.

Leadership in mitigation is when people champion the cause of stopping the devastation and destruction that so many have experienced from countless disasters. Powerful voices and action are vital, because despite the many scientific advances in meteorological prediction and building science that have taught us repeatedly that we can reduce property damage by how we build, there is a phenomena of cognitive dissonance (as explained well by our friend Margaret Davidson) in which many homeowners still say, “it won’t happen to me, so I don’t need to take action”.

This specific act of leadership will make the link between money to recover, to more resilient construction that may in turn not need future recovery funds. This is a big step on the path to resilience.

We applaud the President for his leadership on this critical issue.

To learn more about the new federal flood standard and implementation guidelines (currently available for public comment), visit: whitehouse.gov.

Live from the National Hurricane Center – Tackling the Prep Paradox

If everything goes as planned, I’ll be at the National Hurricane Center in Miami tomorrow for a Satellite Media Tour with Director Dr. Rick Knabb. We’ll connect live with television, radio and online reporters, editors, correspondents and anchors through satellite link-ups. And they will, in turn, remind their audiences about the need to get ready now for flooding, high winds, hurricanes, and storm surge. We’ll be starting our 20 or so interviews before sunrise, including several segments with The Weather Channel. The “Tour” will last for about four hours.

We use media tours when the weather is quiet as they are a good way to get the public’s attention, but tomorrow should be even more effective because of the recent active tropical weather. Storms like BERTHA, ISELLE, and JULIO get the public’s attention because they showcase a pattern that plays out the same way each time. Those in the expected strike zone, (last week it was Hawaii), join in the frenzied, last-minute rush to the grocery and hardware stores to secure basic necessities while the rest of the world watches to see if they get hit by the hurricane.

This is the paradox that those of us in the disaster safety movement live with: we enjoy people’s rapt attention when storms brew, but often the public focus comes just as the window closes on the opportunity to mitigate storm effects. By the time they believe it can happen to them, it’s often too late to act on beneficial protections like flood insurance.

Somehow, many still don’t realize that nearly all homeowners insurance excludes flood damage, and that flood insurance must be in place 30 days before an incident. Even with our modern hurricane forecasting skills, we do not get a month of lead time before a specific landfall.

I’ve been thinking about this ongoing contradiction. Having people’s attention during a storm or impending disaster can save lives if they heed our program messages such as “Turn Around, Don’t Drown.” However, if they only focus on disaster preparation when trouble is impending, they are likely to suffer unnecessarily.

We know this because for more than three decades, in storm after storm, people have shared their regrets with us after the fact. They regret that lack of planning caused fear and stress for their kids. They regret scrambling for scarce supplies because of procrastination. As they clean up their water-logged homes, they regret that they missed out on simple home protection preps like boarding up, caulking windows, cleaning gutters, trimming overhanging limbs or even changing water runoff patterns in the yard.

They remember for years about how miserable it was to endure a power outage without basics like ice, water, or even peanut butter and jelly, never mind a generator or adequate fuel to run it. And they are surprised and frustrated when they lose power even though they were well outside the storm-impacted area. These regrets are compounded with health and welfare problems when the power goes out in extreme heat like Miami after Hurricane Andrew or winter cold like the Northeast after Superstorm Sandy.

We will never miss an opportunity to leverage the public’s attention with safety and prevention messages when we battle complacency directly ahead of a hurricane. But while the weather is peaceful, we will “tour” via satellite hoping to inspire and quoting Ben Franklin along the way, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”