Thursday, January 27, 2022

Miracle? Or the Result of Preparation? (Maybe Some of Each!)

The following is cut & pasted from an email bulletin from FEMA [Building Science: January Updates from, Wednesday, January 26, 2022 11:10 PM, Subject: Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Daily Digest Bulletin]  No online link is available, but the information is too important not to share here.

Building Codes, The Foundation for Resilience: Kentucky Tornadoes

On Dec. 10-11, a violent storm producing multiple tornadoes moved through four states--Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, and Kentucky. The outbreak included an EF4 tornado that was on the ground for 165.7 miles through northwest Tennessee and western Kentucky and another EF3 tornado running for 122.7 miles.

A pre-Mitigation Assessment Team (pre-MAT) was deployed on Dec. 19-23 to investigate building damage and look for safe rooms or storm shelters that may have been hit along these two paths, focusing on the EF4 track.

Bremen KY

The pre-MAT discovered an interesting success story regarding a hardened structure pre-dating current storm shelter criteria in Bremen, Kentucky. Bremen is a rural town hit hard by the tornado, with 12 confirmed deaths out of a population of about 300.

Having survived a tornado in 1979, a military veteran in Bremen rebuilt his home with a hardened structure to protect him and his family if it were to happen again.

He hired a local contractor and got an engineer to design the hardened structure, hoping he would not need it while having peace of mind that it was there. Forty years later, he and 15 others including members of his family and neighbors took shelter in his hardened structure and survived while their homes were destroyed.

The pre-MAT team found most of the structure to be well designed and built, likely meeting many of the current requirements for a storm shelter.

Safe Rooms in Benton, KYAnother success story in the town happened at the Benton Wood Products Facility. As the storm approached the area, 25 employees were split into groups and moved inside two 9 feet by 9 feet safe rooms near the main facility.

Luckily, search and rescue were not needed at this site. The facility is located approximately two miles off the tornado track and was not impacted. However, the employees were very thankful to have a safe room with such a close call by a devastating tornado.

The safe rooms were prefabricated and installed by a private vendor, appeared to comply with FEMA P-361 guidance and ICC-500 criteria, and registered with the National Storm Shelter Association. Safe room owners can also register their location with local emergency officials to help facilitate search and rescue efforts.

For more FEMA resources on Safe Rooms, please see


Thursday, November 4, 2021


Nearly every major cultural or religious tradition on earth includes a historic deluge myth.  An online article by the Public Broadcasting System noted that, “while not all flood stories are the same, the description of the destruction of the world by water is a common theme in many religions and cultures. Most flood stories include an angry God or deity, and a catastrophic water event that destroys the world but is only survived by a chosen few.”

The article continues by noting that “these flood stories also seem to have significant roots in science. Geomythology is the study of how these stories and geology could intersect.  Flood stories  may explain geological [and climatological] phenomena such as volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, fossils, and other natural features of the landscape.”  These stories have been depicted for millennia in folklore, literature, art and, most recently, even in movies.


Building a Traditional Wooden Ship (Source Here)

In the Judeo-Christian tradition (from the accounts in the Torah and the Bible with which I’m most personally familiar), I’ve always pictured it this way:

While ominous storm clouds gather overhead and darken the skies, a sense of impending doom begins to overshadow the Earth.  People become worried and begin to wonder and talk amongst themselves about what it all means.  Conversation turns to debate. And as the first drops of rain begin to fall, debate turns to heated arguments among various factions.  Chaos ensues.  Some groups are convinced they can prevent or turn back the storms, but they disagree on how that can be done.  Some argue that there’s little that can be done, so they sit down to await their fate.  Still others claim it’s just a passing rain shower and rebuke the others for their claims and beliefs. 

In the midst of all this turmoil, there’s one man and his family who are quietly and with great effort building a massive barge in the hope that, should a flood come, they and all the other living things they wish to save, will be spared.  Ultimately, of course, the floods came and the ark lifted to the surface and those on board were kept (yes, I’ll say it) “out of harm’s way” until the water receded.  The simple fact that this family took action to protect themselves is the real lesson in this story.

I thought about this recently watching the debates rage on via news coverage of the most recent United Nations Climate Change Conference.   As I’ve said before on this page, there are plenty of things we’ll do in the name of “climate mitigation” that will no doubt enhance the resilience of our communities and our populace. Regardless of one's particular feelings or political leanings on the topic, there are logical, non-judgemental reason to reduce our carbon footprint and do all we can to prepare for the changing future of our world.

"Since we can work here, if we insist, on geological time, we can always say that more and better data is needed. But there again, if we risk losing a large chunk of humanity while we conclude a few centuries of fieldwork, that is a high price to pay for reliable data. It may be more prudent to proceed on guesswork, and to guess that we should probably do something to guard against a worst-case outcome, if... scientists say that that is where we are currently heading, and if the measures needed to combat climate change (also provide benefits in other ways)."

But I hearken back to my story of Noah.  Storm clouds are gathering (literally) and there may be little we can do to prevent the inevitable.  Climate mitigation is just one piece of the puzzle.  But, like Noah saw, it may be getting too late to mitigate our way out of this.  Which is why he opted to take his family’s fate into his own hands.

In our modern age, there’s a lot of finger pointing going on, even among those who acknowledge there’s a climate problem (e.g., Who’s at fault for causing the problem? Who should pay? And to whom?). Where’s that getting any of us?  And what about all the other geologic hazards that continue to affect human development? We can’t stop volcanoes from eradicating island resorts or earthquakes from leveling entire towns and villages.  And, as we’ve learned recently, events like a global pandemic can overshadow them all.

If the point of all this is truly to save as many lives as possible, maybe it’s time we shift our focus to actions we can take to harden our buildings and shield our communities against potential hazards of all types. 

Maybe, as the ULI says, we should be “investing in places and infrastructure that are the most likely to endure.”  

Maybe better building codes should be better enforced. 

Maybe more resources should be directed toward better zoning and locational decisions. 

Maybe we should eliminate the incentives (like flood insurance) that encourage development in areas prone to natural hazards.

Maybe the proceeds from “carbon credits” should be directed, not at trying to sequester carbon, but at agencies and NGOs that are helping relocate and rebuild safer towns and villages in underserved and hazard-prone regions of the world.

Because maybe by making adaptation the priority (rather than the “back-up plan”) we’ll be able to better ensure that vulnerable populations all over the world remain safe. 

That’s what Noah did.



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! 


A link provided on the web page (HERE) directs a viewer to a YouTube video of a webinar dealing with a topic at the core of this "Out of Harm's Way" page, specifically: 

Where you build something can be as important as how you build it.  

In other words, the webinar directly addresses the role of land use planning in hazard mitigation and how it's tied to building codes.  It also covers the role of FEMA's subsidiary partner "FIMA" (the Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration) in helping communities address these issues in their planning efforts.


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.”