Resilience and mitigation benefits examined at U.S. House committee hearing
The U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management held a hearing — Building Smarter: The Benefits of Investing in Resilience and Mitigation — on March 18, 2021, where committee members received testimony from witnesses with expertise in emergency management, mitigation and resilience, insurance, and construction.
Among the policy proposals being considered, Committee Chairman DeFazio (D-OR) voiced support for the recently reintroduced Disaster Savings and Resilient Construction Act (116th Congress – H.R. 7979), which would create a post-disaster tax credit for properties ($25,000 for commercial and $3,000 for residential) rebuilding to resilience standards consistent with the most recently published editions of the IBC, IRC, IWUIC and/or the ICC-600 Standard for Residential Construction in High-Wind Regions. The Chairman recognized the impracticability of relocating communities away from the wildland-urban interface and advocates to increase wildfire mitigation through defensible space and utility-specific mitigation efforts, which the tax credit would support. The Chairman also pointed to the Department of Defense (DOD) as being exemplary for their commitment to making essential resilience investments. The Unified Facilities Criteria (UFC), the overarching design criteria for buildings and facilities used by DOD, directs the use of several International Codes.
Throughout the hearing, the subcommittee members shared concern about the increasing impact of disasters and the associated cost of recovery. Chairwoman Titus (D-NV) correlated the damage of the recent Texas deep-freeze and power outages with a failure to properly invest in resilience and insulation. She predicts that the Texas winter storm damage will cost more in federal recovery aid than the 2018 hurricanes. Ranking Member Daniel Webster (R-FL) expressed concern that a small number of increasingly larger disasters are driving up disaster costs. He acknowledged that mitigation is more economical in the long run, noting a study from the National Institute of Building Sciences that shows for every $1 invested in mitigation, it can save up to $11 in disaster spending. Additionally, he recognized that the cornerstone of Florida’s disaster preparedness is based on building increasingly resilient buildings.
Chairwoman Titus recognized Ranking Member Daniel Webster’s role as a state legislator who was key in adopting the 1996 Florida Building Code. She noted that updating building codes was a cost-effective mitigation strategy that increased community resilience across Florida. She highlighted an Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) study examining the effectiveness of Florida building codes by comparing homes built before and after devastating hurricanes, noting both a reduction in insurance claims and costs post-code implementation.
DeFazio and Titus further touted the cost savings afforded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Hazard Mitigation Grant Program and hoped to see participation rates increase for the Building Resilient Infrastructure in Communities (BRIC) program, as well as an increased commitment in funding from the Biden Administration.
Russell Strickland, executive director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency — on behalf of the National Emergency Management Association —highlighted his favorite phrase, “mitigation is the center of the universe,” and urged the Biden Administration to commit the full six percent set aside from the 2020 disaster appropriations to the BRIC program. In his written statement, Strickland offered support for the implementation of strong building codes, stating that, “…ensuring building codes meet the needs of a locality and its hazard profile has a demonstrated impact on community resilience in the event of a disaster.” He also cited FEMA’s November 2020 study, “Building Codes Save: A Nationwide Study”, which shows $132 billion in loss avoidance by 2040 because of buildings built to international standards. Strickland suggests improving BRIC to better support states working to update their building code standards and simplifying the overly complicated grant writing process.
Roy Wright, president and chief executive officer of IBHS, encouraged strong statewide building codes and asked Congress to consider legislation that targets investment and that spurs sustained commitments from states to modernize codes. For communities that can afford mitigation actions, he suggested providing resiliency tax incentives and voiced support for the Disaster Savings and Resilient Construction Act. He suggested recalibrating BRIC to better support residential mitigation, possibly through the creation of “community disaster resilience zones, a derivation of the Build America bonds, that drove private sector funding to address natural disaster risk of exposed communities particularly focusing on underserved social-economic areas.”
Velma Smith, senior government relations officer at the Pew Charitable Trusts, noted an alarming estimate of future disaster costs, as reported by the Congressional Budget Office. “It is perplexing then that such approaches have not been deployed more widely that more communities, more developers, and more public and private investors have not completed thorough, forward-looking vulnerability assessments, made sensible sighting decision choices, and embraced modern building codes,” she said. She encouraged Congress to swiftly develop new mitigation investment actions through the National Defense Authorization Act, as was done in the past and voiced support for Flood Resiliency and Taxpayer Savings Act (H.R. 481) introduced by Congressmen David Price (D-NC) and Lee Zeldin (R-NY).
Ben Harper, head of corporate sustainability for Zurich North America, stated that many assets become uninsurable without forethought in safety, mitigation, and resilience. He explained how historic trends in disasters led to the development of building safety standards and called for better investment in existing and aging infrastructure.
In describing his role in developing the Florida Building Code and serving on code development committees, NAHB Chairman Chuck Fowke stressed the need to consider the balance between cost and resilience. Pointing to studies after the 2018 hurricane in Mexico Beach, Florida, that show that homes built post-2000 remained, while older homes did not, he took the position that “homes built to modern, post-2000 building codes are resilient” and suggested focusing on improving the residential building stock built before 2000, which represents the majority of the nation’s building stock. During the Q&A, Mr. Fowke echoed support for tax credits to incentivize homeowners’ resilience improvements, adding that bringing a home up to code and making improvements to windows, doors, and roofs can also add value to the home.
View the full committee hearing on Building Smarter: The Benefits of Investing in Resilience and Mitigation.