Wednesday, October 13, 2021

FEMA Building Science Resource Library

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has updated their most exhaustive collection of resource materials in FEMA's Building Science Resource Library (LINK HERE). 

The online repository contains easily accessed electronic copies of all of FEMA’s hazard-specific guidance that focuses on creating disaster-resistance communities. The collection is immense and incredibly useful as a reference for designers and owners. 

Even better, as the library's home page says: You can search for a document by its title, or filter the collection to browse by: 

  • Disaster Type (High winds, flood, earthquake, etc.) 
  • Document Type (Brochure, report, fact sheet, infographic, etc.) 
  • Audience (Building professionals & engineers, individuals & homeowners, teachers & kids, etc.) 

I don't always post resources without commentary or recommendation, but this is an exception. This repository is well worth using. And its value is immediately evident!

Thursday, September 9, 2021

The Most Disruptive Disaster of All

A number of years ago, I recall being asked to review two university Hazard Mitigation plans that had just been approved by FEMA.  Both were extremely well written and included a detailed analysis of potential risks to campus, along with a somewhat ambitious implementation plan that I (in my role as a capital budget officer) knew would be challenging to fund in a timely way.  Even so, I was pleased that these two institutions had taken the time to work with their stakeholders to think ahead about potential risks to their operations.

The first document included the following extensive list of hazards:


Coastal Erosion   

Coastal Storm   

Dam Failure   



Expansive Soils   

Levee Failure   




Land Subsidence   


Severe Winter Storm   






Throughout the document, this list of hazards reappeared in tables, charts, and ultimately as titles of complete sections of the report, outlining in detail how the impact of each might be mitigated on campus.  Again, it was very well done

As I began reading the second HazMit plan on my desk, I immediately noticed a similar list of hazards, but with the addition of a handful of man-made events like terrorism and a nuclear accident.  Then something caught my eye.  The list included the following as a potential hazard:

            Infectious Disease / Pandemic

I thought for a moment and recalled raging blizzards that dumped feet of snow that shut down campuses for days.  I remembered flooding that ravaged a few of our institutions and the resulting cost of rebuilding affected buildings.  We’d had fires, a deadly tornado, and hurricane damage that caused serious disruptions to university operations.  But an infectious disease or pandemic seemed a very improbable event.  Seeing it on the page conjured up images of sci-fi movies with deadly pathogens, vacant streets, and students and faculty peering from windows wearing face masks.  Of all the potential hazards on the list, this one seemed far too unlikely.  Even if a serious flu was rampant, those who got sick would stay home to recover and campus life for the healthy would continue uninterrupted.

Little did I know.

Little did any of us know just how impactful this single hazard on the list could become and how quickly it could overwhelm, not only a campus, but a community… a state… the nation and world at large.

As you’ve seen on this site, the impacts of COVID-19 have completely eclipsed much of the discussion on Hazard Mitigation Plans.  Not only does it turn out that a pandemic should be included as a critical, potential hazard, but the lingering effects of the Pandemic on society and the potential for spreading the pathogen limit the abilities of communities and campuses to mitigate its impact or even address the needs of victims of other disasters that may occur while the pandemic is raging.  For instance, the size and configuration of a shelter for displaced residents of New Orleans following Hurricane Ida (2021) looks much different than it did for Hurricane Katrina (2005).*

Hindsight is, as they say, “20/20.”  Even so, it cannot be too strongly stressed that, as it turns out, the most disruptive disaster of all has been the COVID pandemic of 2021.  Campus operations were shut down for months and then curtailed significantly for another year; and they are likely to continue to be impacted at some level for years to come.  The future is unknown.  Even so, plans are being made to reconfigure buildings and revise facilities planning guidelines for what might come.

Which brings me to something I read recently posted by the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.  The Center looked at Hazard Mitigation Plans for all 50 states and 5 US territories.  They found that only a handful had addressed the impacts of a pandemic in the same detailed way they had addressed other hazards; and many hadn’t addressed the issue of a pandemic at all.  The data looked like this (source is the posted link above):

The authors of the analysis noted that “identifying and planning for the risks of potential disasters, such as a pandemic, is the first step to ensuring that communities and regions are prepared for them.” And yet that wasn’t happening.  The post continues:

Many states categorize pandemics as having a low probability of occurring when compared to other natural hazards, but the current pandemic has shown the long term devastating social and economic consequences. In particular, COVID-19 has had disproportionate effects on low-income communities of color and front-line workers. Thus, in addition to having a clear strategy and response plan, it is essential to identify the most vulnerable populations and hazard areas, and to have a strong framework for coordination among emergency management and public health agencies…

Planning must go beyond disaster response but also building community resilience by bolstering healthcare, Internet access, and other needs for direct assistance when it is needed most. Although hazard mitigation plans can help identify the networks and communication strategies needed, they are just one piece of the response framework. There is an important opportunity for state and local emergency management to strengthen responses and coordinate with public health plans for future events that could be like COVID-19, as well as to prioritize identifying and having a plan to protect people and sectors that would be most affected by a pandemic due to structural inequities. Going forward, FEMA and states can work to evaluate outcomes from COVID-19 to devise more effective hazard mitigation plans.

I’m suggesting the same for our institutions of higher education.


*Footnote: Ida was a stronger storm when it made landfall in roughly the same general area as Katrina.  One of the reasons scientists noted seemingly less damage and inundation with the 2021 storm was the completion of major repairs to the levee system protecting the city.  Hazard Mitigation paying off. 


Monday, January 4, 2021


The street view on Google Earth (above) is one of a suburban road called Nystulia, in a modern neighborhood in the village of "Ask," outside Oslo, Norway.  The gentleness of the hill and the appearance of the stately homes and condos belie the dangers beneath.

During a five year period (2003-2007), at the request of the government and developers, the Norwegian Geological Institute released a series of reports on the soils in the area and made a series of recommendations for development.  According to the NGI, there was a danger of landslide. The NGI recommended mitigation measures, including the following:

  • Relief/excavation of higher terrain to reduce load
  • Filling of lower terrain and the ravine valley to act as a backfill or counterweight for a possible landslide
  • Erosion protection

At some point, permits were granted and development moved ahead.  According to the NGI, it’s unclear how many of these recommendations were followed or how extensively the developers considered them.  Regardless, now 15 years later, a significant landslide event just two days before the end of 2020 swallowed dozens of buildings and has killed at least seven (with another 3 missing).  A landslide blog (here, with the original article here and and update article here) posted this photo of the aftermath. The yellow arrow (added here) shows the location of the Google camera that had captured the image above.  Sadly, many of the structures depicted in that photo (along with those inside) fell victim to the tragedy.

 Clearly engineering solutions to this problem weren’t enough.  And, once again, as so often the case in events of this magnitude, the lesson learned is clear: The only way to truly be safe from some dangers is to stay as far away from them as possible.  That lesson resonates with one family interviewed by the New York Times:

“The village has suffered quite a tough blow,” said John-Magnus Restad, a pilot who lives with his wife and son about half a mile north of the site. He added that they were not sure they would stay in Ask. Though they knew the area lay on quick clay, he said he never believed “a slide of this proportion could happen.”

But the decision was clear for Trine Johnsgard, 60, who said she and her husband, Kjetil Johnsgard, who live about 80 yards away from the gorge, were lucky to escape their home with their dog Linus, a wallet and one cellphone.

“I hope we don’t have to move back, because we don’t dare to,” Ms. Johnsgard told the newspaper VG, adding that she worried about the value of her home, which is on a street called Nystulia, where many of the missing had lived. “No one wants to move to Nystulia now.”




Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Share. And then push for action!

A recommendation led me to an excellent piece in Nature Magazine dealing with the value of sharing information in building resilience among nations and communities.  The article cites a number of recent events that, had better information been available (and acted upon appropriately in advance), could have resulted in fewer deaths and less loss of property.

The article notes, for example, the lack of proper building code enforcement in Nepal and poor flood mitigation in parts of Southeast Asia were, in part, due to a lack of communication of “best practices” among those that need them most.  But the problem isn’t limited to developing countries.  Industrialized nations, as well, don’t heed the lessons learned from others, like those in the text box below copied and pasted here from the article.  Indeed, this blog itself started to help fill, in a small way, the need to disseminate information on this topic more widely to the general public.

But having the best information is only part of the solution.  Those that listen must then act on what they hear and encourage, entice (e.g., through reward programs), and perhaps even coerce through legislation, others to do the same.  The Nature piece continues:

Sadly, hazard mitigation is not a vote-winner. It pits long-range investments against short-term political cycles — even though it is cheaper to prevent losses than to rebuild after them. Reinforcing the levees of New Orleans, Louisiana, against hurricane storm surges would have cost ten times less than rebuilding neighbourhoods after Hurricane Katrina. It is more politically expedient to respond afterwards when constituents are demanding assistance. Public awareness of the scale of disaster risks is hindered by the breadth and complexity of research, spanning the natural, social and health sciences, law, humanities and engineering.

This says it all.  Planning has a no more important role than in preventing or reducing the impact of hazards to human life.  Disaster risk reduction policies should be a high priority for governments all around the world who should not only understand the risks they face, but (according to the article) “strengthen risk governance to manage risks across all sectors; invest in risk-reduction measures that promote resilience; and enhance disaster preparedness and responses so that [their] nations build back better in their recovery.”

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Resource Update: APA Hazard Mitigation Policy Guide (2020)

The American Planning Association (APA) recently approved a landmark Hazard Mitigation Policy Guide (a free download) intended to help communities and municipalities structure a planning process that will result in the most effective and achievable hazard mitigation plans and policies.  By way of introduction, the guide describes the three parts of an effective resilience strategy and likens it to a “three-legged stool comprised of Mitigation, Adaptation, and Response/Recovery.”  

 The guide continues:

·       Hazard Mitigation comprises a series of actions that lessen the severity or intensity of the hazard’s impact when it strikes and begins with avoidance and minimization.

·       Adaptation entails modifying the natural or built environment to make it more suited to changed or changing conditions and situations. Adaptation can also mean changes in community behavior that better safeguard human and environmental health when faced with the stresses imposed by hazards of all types.

·       Response/Recovery is the response during and after an event to protect public safety, health, and well-being and, ultimately, to facilitate community recovery through repair or replacement, ideally to a more resilient condition.

All of these are necessary components of resilience. Planning that focuses on one to the exclusion of the others will not support true resiliency. However, a strong mitigation program can lessen the need for and expense of response and recovery.

I highly recommend this timely addition to Hazard Mitigation literature!