Friday, August 16, 2019

Reference Update: The Whole Building Design Guide

The Whole Building Design Guide, an exhaustive reference for all things design and construction, is made possible by the National Institute of Building Sciences, and a wide range of Federal agencies and other organizations.  It includes a section on the parameters of Hazard Mitigation Planning that begins:

"Buildings in any geographic location are subject to a wide variety of natural phenomena such as windstorms, floods, earthquakes, and other hazards. While the occurrence of these incidents cannot be precisely predicted, their impacts are well understood and can be managed effectively through a comprehensive program of hazard mitigation planning.  Ongoing changes in climate patterns around the world may alter the behavior of hydro-meteorological phenomena within our lifetimes. The frequency and severity of floods, storms, droughts, and other weather-related disasters is expected to increase, as is the risk from associated changes in the manifestation of other hazards such as wildland fires."

The page includes definitions, descriptions and links to references about a wide range of hazards; and lays out a number of recommended best practices for planners, designers, building owners, communities and government leaders. A separate section adds a wealth of links to online resources on a variety of related topics, as well as building codes and standards. These links, in turn, provide connection to a seemingly limitless source of detailed information.  It is a highly recommended "must see" resource.

The page references a number of principles underlying the hazard mitigation process, paraphrased as follows:
  • Hazard mitigation is at the core of disaster resistance and supports achieving resilience.
  • Unsustainable development is one of the major factors in the rising costs of natural disasters.
  • Mitigation serves to help stop the cascading effects of hazards and their impact.
  • Concurrent or sequential multi-hazard events may result in a compounded impact.
  • Impacts from natural hazards can be reduced through preventive or corrective actions.
  • Proactive (preventive) mitigation measures are usually cheaper and more effective.
  • Risk reduction techniques must address as many applicable hazards as possible.
    High-performance buildings should exceed model building code requirements for disaster resistance.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Just Gathering Dust?

One of my first jobs while in college was behind a drawing board in the university’s planning office. I prepared construction drawings and maps and the occasional artistic renderings of new campus buildings.  It was great work, but as the lone student employee among a group of seasoned professionals, I was also picked to be the “gopher” for the office (e.g., “go ‘fer this, and go ‘fer that”). I logged a lot of miles on foot and in university vehicles, but I also got to meet a lot of great people and see a lot of the campus and the city in the process.

I had been on the job only a week or so when the boss asked me to deliver the final photo-ready copies of the campus master plan to the printer across town.  Then, a few weeks later, I was asked to go retrieve a number of boxes of carefully bound volumes that were then distributed to administrators across campus.  Each member of our office staff was given a copy, complete with the staff member’s name embossed neatly on the cover.  I still have mine on my office shelf.  I didn’t have much to do with the contents, but my name was there nonetheless.

I learned a great deal from that first job, from the people I worked with, and the opportunities those contacts brought later in my career. But I always wondered about that book on my shelf. There it sat, for years, gathering dust.  A few years later, a new master plan was developed and published and, though it wasn’t hard bound for posterity, it likewise sat on a shelf.  A dozen years, three jobs and two cross-country moves later, I was back at the same institution—this time in my boss’s chair.  And when an update of the campus master plan was necessitated by the potential for a massive outside investment in campus development, I had the chance to do it all differently.

The new plan took the bulk of the next four years to complete. The plan itself was structured as a land-use document, tied to the needs of the campus and its impact on the environment. For the first time, it was based heavily on the broad input of campus and community stakeholders. Perhaps even more unique was that it was completed and “published” as a series of reference documents in a loose-leaf binder, with the intent that it wouldn’t be a shelf decoration, but would be pulled down and used regularly by architects, planners, and engineers. 

The plan was successful. I left shortly after it was finished and took a new job 2,300 miles away, but many of the elements of the plan came to fruition. Furthermore, when the time came to update it again, I noticed that the institution used a similar approach and format. They’ve also continued—strengthened, in fact—the environmental and community focus.  So I’d like to think I played a part, at least, in helping improve the process and shift the direction of the campus toward its new future.

Getting the right information into the document is only half the battle. I wonder, for instance, if those plans—like that neatly bound volume with my name on it on my office shelf—sit unopened, gathering dust, while development decisions are being made.  I’d like to think that documents like these are consulted regularly. But I’m not sure that’s the case.

So what does it take to make sure a well-prepared plan is used and referenced regularly?  Here are a few of my thoughts on that question:

Seek Broad Participation.  Involve as many people as you can in the plan’s preparation.  Being part of a plan’s preparation means stakeholders are invested and interested in the outcome.  They won’t let you forget the promises you made and will always be interested to see how the ideas they shared to be incorporated in the final.

Include Targeted Goals/Objectives.  Elements of the plan should directly address the needs of the individuals and groups the plan is intended to benefit.  If a plan is organized around these clear goals and objectives, and includes specific ways to measure its success over time, it will become a useful tool and be referenced frequently.

Choose Simplicity.  Organizing a document in a way that it can be easily referenced and updated will help ensure it is used. Clear, precise language and high quality graphic design make the document more readable.  The binder idea was helpful, but many now find electronic documents far easier to use. Regardless of the format, being able to find what you’re looking for at a click or at a glance, helps keep people using the plan.

Use Carrots and Sticks.  Communities require reference of, and adherence to, plans and building codes.  But you can also reward people for using the plan.  Tying goals to budget requests, by insisting that requests demonstrate compliance with the plan, will help guarantee frequent access to the plan itself.

The bottom line for hazard mitigation plans is that, where something as critical as the lives and livelihoods of people are at stake, the only way to ensure the best development decisions are made is to do all possible to make sure the plan is pulled off the shelf, opened, and used.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

It's About Helping People Help Themselves

I recently re-read a fascinating paper by O’Brien, et al., titled "Climate Change and Disaster Management," published over a decade ago in the journal Disasters [2006, 30(I):64-80].   

The piece is built on the premise that “climate change, though a natural phenomenon, is accelerated by human activities.” It opens by citing statistics that bear out that “disasters triggered by natural hazards are killing more people over time and costing more.” This is, sadly, a trend that has continued, not abated, over the intervening years since the article’s publication.

The paper’s authors profoundly underscore the notion that, while hazards are natural, disasters are man-made. This is something discussed on this site frequently.  The article describes situations in developing countries, for instance, where entire populations have no choice but to live in flood-prone areas. 

“Hazards, such as floods, are natural events; however, disasters are not natural.  In Latin America, it has been common for some time to define disasters as ‘failed development…’ Since risk is a function of both hazard and vulnerability, and hazards are, at least to some extent, known and constant, vulnerability appears to be the main factor that distinguishes between those who suffer loss and those who escape it.”

A comprehensive approach to risk management “would integrate natural hazards mitigation, routine development efforts,… and efforts to address climate change.”  So, the writers ask, “what approach to planning is compatible with all three and provides a bridge among natural hazards mitigation, sustainable human development and adaptation to climate change?" Their answer is that “climate change adaptation needs to become part and parcel of comprehensive risk management.”

“The underlying drive of disaster management is to reduce risk to both human life and to systems important to livelihoods. Risk to human populations is a function of the frequency of a hazard event, its severity, and people’s vulnerability. Vulnerability depends on many factors that influence the amount of damage and the loss of human life that a particular hazard can cause. These variables include exposure, physical susceptibility, socio-economic fragility, and lack of resilience.  Vulnerability, and hence risk, is socially determined… and vulnerability is made up of ‘the characteristics of a person or group and their situation that influence their capacity to anticipate, to cope with, resist and recover from the impact of a natural hazard.’”

Definitions aside, what is important here is, in my opinion, that the decisions we make influence the severity of the impact of a natural hazard on our communities.  “Investments and development activities are almost never risk-neutral.”  The notion of defining a disaster as “failed development” raises a host of questions about why and how we often ignore (or minimize) the potential impact of a hazard event when, for instance, choosing a location for development or choosing how best to construct improvements in areas we know to be prone to natural hazards.

“Adaptation to climate change may involve some very difficult political choices. For instance, long-term changes to land use are likely to be required (affecting agriculture and forestry, the use of coasts, estuaries and river resources and settlement patterns and infrastructure).  It may be necessary to instigate a process of managed retreats from those areas that will become unusable, involving relocation to areas that offer security and opportunity. To deal with such serious matters, national decision-making will require strong, sustainable and accepted institutional structures and a population and civil society educated in the issues and alternatives.

For those who lack the choices populations in more developed countries enjoy, “risk management cannot, of itself, address the underlying causes of poverty. But if approached from the standpoint of resilience, it can help to build those structures that will enable a greater degree of self-help. It is about helping people to help themselves. The mechanisms, resources and capacity do exist.”

Short Memories

A recent article in the New York Times begins with a sobering observation of fact: "In many coastal states, flood-prone areas have seen the highest rates of home construction since 2010, a study found, suggesting that the risks of climate change have yet to fundamentally change people’s behavior."  The article continues, saying:

"There are many reasons construction persists despite the danger. In some cases it’s urban sprawl, in others it’s a desire among government officials for property-tax revenues. But whatever the reason, this kind of building activity will 'come back and bite,' said Benjamin Strauss, president and chief scientist of Climate Central, which produces and publishes research on the effects of global warming.

The article describes the two-fold problems of such irrational decisions. The first is financial. Flood risks and, thereby, flood insurance rates (and rebuilding costs) will continue to increase over the years for residents in these flood-prone areas.  The second is, for me, the most obvious: Safety. When the floods come, families will be put in danger, as will those who come to rescue them (if they come at all).  So why isn't more being done to prohibit (or at least inhibit) such development?

For many communities, it's a lack of political will to address the problem. Where homes are destroyed (as with Hurricane Sandy), local governments are reluctant to prohibit redevelopment, citing the negative financial impact of lost property tax revenue. While coastal properties continue to be so highly valued, the opportunity cost of a decision to create safer, less vulnerable coastal open space is just too high.

Memories are short. The article describes areas in the south affected by Hurricane Katrina where the desire for coastal living outshines the lingering danger of a potential future storm.  So houses continue to be built and eager homebuyers pay higher and higher flood premiums.

The City of Nashville has an answer.  An NPR piece a couple of years ago describes the government's plan to buy people out of their homes and eliminate the risk in flood-prone areas permanently.  The report continues:

"Since 2010, Nashville has bought 261 homes and hopes to acquire 90 more. They're mostly houses built before the 1970s, when the city raised its standards for how high a new structure had to be above the floodplain.  It's not as expensive for cities as it seems. The Federal Emergency Management Agency pays 75 percent of the cost of buyout, figuring that otherwise it could be stuck helping to fund flood insurance for a property, or paying to help rebuild it every few years. Buyouts have become a priority for FEMA as climate change had led to more intense rainfall events and flooding.

"'We don't look at the 2010 flood as a once-in-a-lifetime event,' says Roger Lindsey, who oversees flood mitigation for Nashville.  He says the focus of the buyout program is 'to take houses that are repetitive loss houses, to offer a homeowner fair market value for the house, and we demolish that home and return the land to a more natural state.'  The land then becomes space for a community garden, a greenway, or park. But that is up to neighborhoods to organize and could take time" 

Even leaders in Nashville admit it's not always an easy sell.  Homeowners are reluctant to leave.  But as the frequency and severity of flood events continues to grow, more are handing over their keys and giving in to the changing climate.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Bathtubs: Or When Words Fail

Frederick MD's Baker Park on Monday (source Frederick News Post)

Following a massive rain event that resulted in dramatic flooding along the I-270 Corridor between Frederick MD into Washington DC and suburban Virginia, I read a headline in the Washington Post that included the phrase “why the D.C. area was deluged by a month’s worth of rain in an hour.”  The article said:

The record-setting cloudburst unleashed four inches of water in a single hour, way too much for a paved-over, heavily populated urban area to cope with at the height of the morning rush.  The sheets of rain, with nowhere to run off, turned major roads into rivers while streams and creeks shot up 10 feet in less than an hour. The rushing water stranded scores of people in their vehicles, poured into businesses and the Metro system, submerged cars in parking lots, swamped basements and caused some roads to cave in, forming massive sinkholes.

Yes, it was a lot of rain that fell in a short period of time in an area marked by urban development (e.g., hard surfaces with limited drainage ability). But I kept reading for an answer to the question “Why?” Why the deluge? The article devolved into a discussion of warm air masses, stalled frontal boundaries and convective cells. But it still didn’t answer the question “Why?”

Then came the very last sentences in the article. Almost as an afterthought, a tepid explanation of the “why” behind the massive storm was tacked to the end of the piece by the author, simply:

Storm environments with these exceptionally high amounts of atmospheric water content are expected to increase from climate change-induced rising temperatures. And it’s plausible Monday’s rainstorm was intensified by the climate warming that has already occurred.

So much for a substantive explanation.

Fortunately, another article (a story published by WAMU, American University's radio station) in Washington, DC, did a much better job outlining both the evolution of the problem and the path going forward, as it is being laid out by FEMA and others.  The WAMU story correctly points out that:

This week’s flooding was caused by a short, intense storm that dumped water faster than stormwater pipes could carry it away. This is called interior flooding.  D.C. is also vulnerable to riverine flooding and tidal flooding. Both of these come from our rivers, but from different directions. Tidal flooding occurs when a coastal storm surge pushes up from the Chesapeake Bay, making the Potomac and Anacostia rise out of their banks. Riverine flooding occurs when a storm upstream brings too much water down the rivers.

More importantly, the article lays out the specifics of the climate problem and describes what city government is doing to address it and plan for the future.

Climate change is making all three types of flooding worse. Sea level is rising — already, the Potomac has risen 11 inches, and could go up another three feet. This makes tidal and riverine flooding more likely. At the same time, climate change is increasing the intensity of storms in the mid-Atlantic, meaning interior flooding is more likely, too. What was once considered a one-in-100-year storm could be a one-in-15-year storm by 2080….  Now, the District is spending $5 million to create a new, more accurate flood map that will take into account all three types of flooding as well as climate change, showing residents in much more accurate detail which areas are most ask risk.

“The modeling will tell us where to prioritize, and where the areas are more bathtub-like within the District,” says Tommy Wells, director of the District Department of Energy and Environment.  Wells says addressing those bathtub-like areas, where floodwaters can build up without draining, will be a major undertaking. It may require replacing some stormwater pipes with larger ones, and also rethinking other public areas that could hold water temporarily during an intense rainfall, keeping it from flooding homes and businesses.  “That next park that we build or redo or refurbish — maybe we need to drop that park down two or three feet so that water will be held there in the event of a major storm,” says Wells.


Update (a day later): A DC Area TV news story focused on the dramatic flooding in Frederick, MD's Baker Park (pictured at the top of this entry).  They said the massive deluge in the park was done on purpose.  It was the result of a deliberate flood mitigation system put in place to steer water away from populated areas!