News Brief

Mitigating Disasters: Invest Now, Spend Less Later

A National Institute of Building Sciences study shows mitigation saves money, buildings—and lives.

March 20, 2018

Benefit-cost ratio by hazard and mitigation measure

Benefit-cost ratio by hazard and mitigation measure.

Chart courtesy National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS)
The National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) has issued a report that found when federal funds are invested in mitigating hazards, in the long term, far fewer dollars are spent on disaster recovery and other costs.

The Natural Hazard Saves: 2017 Interim Report, funded by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is part of a series of studies; the most recent was published in 2005.

The 2017 study found that for every dollar spent, on average, $6 is saved in avoided recovery and health care costs, and in economic activity that would otherwise have been lost due to a disaster.

The report comes in the wake of the most-costly year on record in the U.S. for weather- and climate-related disasters. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in 2017 the losses from 16 natural disasters added up to $306.2 billion, more than the previous record set in 2005, when seven major hurricanes hit—including Katrina, Rita, Wilma, and Dennis.

Learning from the last disaster

“Disasters are cyclical. There’s always the next flood,” said Keith Porter of SPA Risk, LLC and the principal investigator of the NIBS study. “We like to reduce the next one using the lessons learned from the last one.”

The study looked at 23 years of past federal grants from FEMA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the Economic Development Administration (EDA). These grants funded the retrofitting of mostly public buildings, such as schools or wastewater treatment plants, to better resist natural disasters.

Besides calculating the future value of mitigation dollars, the study also found that designing new buildings to exceed current building code requirements would save, on average, $4 in the future for every $1 invested. For example, in areas where there have been earthquakes, funding would be saved if architects designed new buildings to be “stronger and stiffer than the International Building Code requires,” explained Porter. Another example is “to design new buildings subject to riverine flooding so that they’re higher up above the base flood elevation than the code requires.”

In addition, the report looked at the value of meeting codes that aren’t often addressed, such as the International Wildland Urban Interface Code to protect against fires. “If you’re complying with that code, you couldn’t have wood shake roofs,” explained Porter. “You would have to clear a defensible space around a house … You couldn’t have trees that come right up to the house.”

Mitigation protects more than buildings

Two months after Hurricane Maria, homes like this one in Loíza, Puerto Rico, were still damaged by fallen trees.

On November 20, 2017—two months after Hurricane Maria struck the island—a large tree remains untouched from where it fell, damaging a home in Loíza, Puerto Rico.

Photo: FEMA/Steven Shepard
The benefits of hazard mitigation can also extend beyond the property line, to the broader economy. “When you strengthen a building, and a disaster happens, and it remains operational, then the businesses that are in that building can continue to do business with the rest of the economy. So, everybody saves.” said Porter.

The report said mitigation measures would create 87,000 new long-term jobs and would increase the use of American-made construction materials by 1%. “If you built your new house to be five feet above base flood elevation rather than one foot,” explained Porter, “there is an additional four feet of foundation material.” For example, taller posts would be produced by workers and purchased by builders, stimulating the economy.

By implementing the two sets of strategies—federal funding of mitigation grants and exceeding provisions of the 2015 building codes—huge health benefits would be realized, according to the summary of the study, such as preventing “600 deaths, one million nonfatal injuries, and 4,000 cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the long term.”

The benefits of strengthening a building today, whether calculated in dollars, economic stability, or public health, aren’t realized until a disaster occurs.

“Future disasters are inevitable,” wrote NIBS president Henry L. Green, Hon. AIA, in the foreword of the report, “yet their growing frequency and magnitude of destruction are substantially exacerbated by the decisions Americans make in where and how they build.”

For more information:

National Institute of Building Sciences

Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves: 2017 Interim Report

Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety

U.S. Fire Administration Wildland Urban Interface toolkit

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