Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

Build It Better Leadership Forum

Thursday and Friday I had the pleasure to attend the Build It Better Leadership Forum in Charlotte. Renaissance Reinsurance, the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, and their partners put on a superlative event bringing together nearly all of the stakeholders in what Leslie Chapman-Henderson has dubbed the Mitigation Movement. Presentations from the meeting will be available shortly on, so I’m just going to hit a few highlights and throw in a few gratuitous comments.

Wayne Goodwin (NC Insurance Commissioner and State Fire Marshal – interesting combination) highlighted several programs in North Carolina. His talk pointed to the tension state insurance agencies face: letting insurance premiums reflect real risk (thus discouraging stupid development) vs keeping insurance affordable so that people have this important resource for recovery.

Rick Knabb of the National Hurricane Center gave an excellent talk centered around whether Hurricane Sandy was “unique” or not . His presentation and several others did a great job of debunking the idea that this was an unprecedented storm. I was left with a question, though. The Long Island Express of ‘38 was a scalpel that slashed and reshaped the Long Island Sound. Did Sandy’s butter knife have that same impact on the NJ-NY shore?

I particularly enjoyed Bill Read’s talk (former head of the National Hurricane Center) spotlighting what he saw as the next potential catastrophes. Number 1 on his list was the southwest Gulf Coast of FL – he pointed out that this has the highest concentration of the elderly in America as well as highly constrained evacuation options. Second on his list was the Savannah-Charleston Low Country. He praised Chatham County for its efforts to prepare its population. I know that its Hurricane Academy is top-notch:  the way the “Academy” tells even the poorest how they can strengthen their homes on a shoestring is really impressive. Bill also highlighted (low-lighted?) the Virginia Tidewater and the lower Rio Grande Valley for their vulnerability. I was a little disappointed that he didn’t point to the Sacramento Valley: this is the area that I believe is the most vulnerable in the country – development where development wasn’t intended, protected only by crumbling levees.

There were several talks from insurers. An interesting aspect of Sandy was that the insurance payouts for personal property were not particularly intense, but claims for autos were. This was due to the relatively sparse evacuation.

A theme reiterated throughout the meeting was that building codes – if properly maintained and enforced – really work. Tim Reinhold of IBHS made the point that enforcement of high wind codes can reduce wind damage claims by about 60%. Leslie C-H really pounded that message home in her usual inimitable style.

Gavin Smith and I both pointed to the potential impacts of Biggert-Waters. I personally believe that Dodd-Franks can have an even bigger impact: some people don’t have insurance, but almost everyone has to take out a loan when buying or refurbishing a home. And Dodd-Franks means that local banks now have to carry much more of the risks of homes in unsafe places than ever before. If we can get weather risks into loan decisions, it may well do more than anything else we can do to educate home owners.

Frank Nutter talked in terms of what we could/should be doing to further community resilience, primarily following the recommendations of one of NY’s Sandy commissions.

  • Assess the community [of course this resonated with me!]. Appoint state and local Resilience Officers to look at risk and mitigation. I think about Bill Hooke’s idea of an NTSB for weather events as a responsibility for this position.
  • Close collaboration of state and local communities in safety/health/security matters.
  • Evaluate business interruption financing.
  • Improve building codes and enforcement.
  • Develop private sector emergency response capacity [and integrate it with the public sector].
  • Incorporate considerations of extreme weather / climate risks into community development decisions.
  • Use nature to mitigate risk [in part, the reason for my question on Sandy's impact above].
  • Mitigation tax credits.

There was lots more: Dave Canaan’s story of the remodeling of Charlotte’s watershed, Ann Roberson’s SC Safe Home, and especially Robin Westcott’s refreshingly frank remarks about what the state of Florida has done right and wrong in mitigation all should be heard by everyone.

The meeting was so upbeat its energy was almost exhausting. The focus was on action – what can or should or could we do now to build better. It brought to mind the lyrics of an old Van Morrison song:

“These are the days, the time is now
There is no past, there’s only future
There’s only here, there’s only now…

These are the days now that we must savour
And we must enjoy as we can
These are the days that will last forever
You’ve got to hold them in your heart.”

Not a bad anthem for community resilience.