Editor's Letter

Nov. 17, 2017

What Is the Right Price to Pay for Resilience?

Whether to build with straw, sticks or bricks was the question for the three little pigs. A big bad wolf of disastrous worldwide weather is causing building owners to ponder the same question today. 

Whether you believe that mankind has a significant role in climate change or not, severe weather is on the rise. Some facts are undeniable, like higher ocean temperatures and the impact of warm water on storm severity. Another fact: warmer air holds more moisture. Roosevelt Skerrit, the prime minister of Dominica, a Caribbean island devastated by hurricanes Irma and Maria, told the United Nations that “heat is the fuel that takes ordinary storms – storms we could normally master in our sleep – and supercharges them into a devastating force.” It’s been reported that Houston has had three so-called “500-year” floods in the last decade, which clearly undercuts the value of such shorthand attempts to measure severity. 

But what is a reasonable price to pay for greater resilience? Ten days before Harvey hit Houston, the Trump administration revealed its answer by revoking an Obama-era executive order that established a flood risk management standard. That order would have set a resiliency bar for developers when federal funds are being spent for infrastructure. The Obama administration estimated that the regulations would have increased building costs by 0.25% to 1.25%. 

And what would be the return from investments in greater disaster mitigation for buildings and infrastructure? The Multihazard Mitigation Council of the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) completed a study in 2005 (Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves: An Independent Study to Access the Future Savings from Mitigation Activities) that found that each public $1 spent on mitigation reduces future losses from earthquakes, winds and floods by $4.  

NIBS is currently working on an updated study that will investigate the benefits of mitigating private-sector buildings beyond minimum code requirements. It will include analysis of fires as well as earthquakes, winds and floods. It will also include analysis of the value of mitigation for new construction and retrofits. 

Scheduled for release next month, the new study should be of interest to all those who want to prepare for the next inevitable disaster rather than estimate their chances of beating the next 500-year event. 

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