Last week, I had the privilege of visiting Washington, D.C., to sit on a panel titled “Identifying State and Local Mitigation Priorities” for the Forum on FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) Program. This forum is part of the Disaster Mitigation and Resilience Forum Series put on by the BuildStrong Coalition and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to unite FEMA and congressional leadership, state and local emergency managers and disaster officials, and industry stakeholders.
The discussion I had with Chris Rodriguez with the District of Columbia Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency (HSEMA) and Nick Crossley with the Hamilton County Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency was an important one, led by thought-provoking questions from moderator Pamela Williams from the BuildStrong Coalition. Here are some of the key takeaways that I wish to share with the emergency managers, community stakeholders, and partners who were not able to attend.
We need to change the way we approach mitigation.
In addition to grantee education and outreach about what BRIC offers, we need to change the way we approach mitigation. To do this, I recommend an outcomes-focused approach to using funding. Right now, we often look at what funding is available and then decide what mitigation projects to pursue. Instead of trying to develop projects that fit into a specific grant program, we need to first identify what outcomes we are hoping to achieve.
After we know what we want to do for the community, then we should ask ourselves what funds are available to apply to the project to meet the desired outcome. In switching from a funding-first focus to a project-first focus, we will be better able to respond to the unique challenges of our individual communities.
We need to make sure grantees know about BRIC and how to use it.
BRIC, which is authorized under the Disaster Recovery Reform Act (DRRA), is a much-needed grant program for national public infrastructure pre-disaster hazard mitigation and will help ensure the building of resilient communities. This great new program comes with a big challenge: making state and local jurisdictions aware of the opportunity. This means awareness that funding is available, what the program is for, how grantees can use it, and how it differs from other programs.
Although it may not feel like it sometimes, we could be taking better advantage of several resources and funding opportunities already out there. By looking closely at these existing programs, from the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) to the National Flood Insurance Program’s (NFIP) Community Rating System (CRS), we can identify why they are not being fully used and use those lessons learned to build them into BRIC. We want to waste as little time as possible between funding availability and implementing good mitigation projects.
We need to fully integrate the tools available to build disaster-resilient communities.
BRIC is another tool that needs to be integrated with the existing resources out there because the amount of money available through the program is only a drop in the bucket compared to the overall need across the country for building resilient communities. To do that, we need to do a better job of showing the math.
When it comes time to change building codes at a local level, those opposed to making codes more stringent show their math. We need to counter that with math showing how it relates to the way we build or rebuild infrastructure. How much higher are recovery costs from damaged infrastructure alone under less stringent building codes? How much higher are insurance premiums in communities that experience repetitive losses from disasters? How much tax revenue does a community lose when they are not resilient to disasters? How does that affect jobs, livelihoods, and future economic growth?
We are spending a lot of money recovering from storms. While it is true that more stringent building codes are going to cost more up front, we also know that every $1 spent on hazard mitigation saves the nation $6 in future disaster costs according to the Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves: 2017 Interim Report released last year by the Multihazard Mitigation Council (MMC). This council that I chair through the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) also notes that designing new buildings to higher codes will save the nation $4 for every $1 spent; prevent deaths, injuries, and trauma; and create jobs, which offset some of the increased costs from building to these international building codes.
In places where we are seeing housing shortages and unaffordable housing prices, spending money today to save in the future is going to be a tough sell. We need to figure out how to incentivize adopting those codes and standards by using some of those BRIC funds to help support these communities. After all, recovery costs are paid for by taxpayers nation-wide, so we do need to think about these local challenges within the bigger picture.
The cornerstone to creating and implementing mitigation programs is simplicity.
The key to building residential and individual resilience through mitigation projects on an individual basis is simplicity. After Hurricane Ivan in 2004, which caused over $26 billion in damages, Florida ran a program called REBUILD Northwest Florida to help homeowners fortify their homes. REBUILD Northwest Florida was still going strong when I served as Director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management years later, the program having completed over 10,000 retrofits on homes in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties to date. The success of this program is contingent on its simplicity for homeowners to not only apply, but also to complete the work, which is cultivated through the public/private partnership that exists to coordinate mitigation projects.
When programs are too complicated, homeowners are not going to buy into them. We need to demonstrate that we can do things simply in housing, just as we have done with promoting individual energy efficiencies through electric cars, solar panels, and ENERGY STAR appliances. The simpler we make programs and the more streamlined the process, the more people are going to take advantage of it. For BRIC to be successful, we need to keep homeowner simplicity at the forefront of our resiliency goals.
The conversation on how to use mitigation to build state and local resiliency is only just getting started, and BRIC will help to keep the topic in the forefront of our minds. There are challenges ahead, but I am confident that this program will go a long way in building a safe, secure, and resilient world. To learn more about the BRIC program, check out the Webinar Series 2019: Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities on FEMA’s website.
Author: Bryan Koon, Vice President for International Homeland Security and Emergency Management