As we discussed in a previous post, we’re big fans of FEMA’s new National Risk Index. But how does it actually determine which American communities are most at risk from natural disasters? This post is the first in a three-part series that takes a deeper look at each of the three criteria FEMA uses to assess danger, and what true disaster preparedness looks like in the real world. The first we’re examining is community resilience—and more specifically, the first element of resilience: mitigation.
The FEMA National Risk Index assigns an overall risk score to American communities, down to the county and Census tract level, assessing their vulnerability to environmental disasters. This score is determined through three variables. The first and most obvious is the expected annual loss in both human and monetary terms from a disaster. The second variable, social vulnerability, measures the ‘susceptibility of social groups to adverse impacts of natural hazards. Communities with strong health and social service networks, for instance, can mitigate overall risk; communities that lack such infrastructure are likely to suffer greater losses.
The third variable, community resilience, which we’re exploring in this piece, is the most complicated to assess. It involves a range of preparatory activities that a community might take to mitigate its risk, as well as its capacity to rebuild and return to normalcy following a hazard.
Let’s take a closer look at that first element of community resilience: mitigation. What does it look like across the country?
Building With Resilience in Mind
Risk mitigation is the first and perhaps most important link in the chain of economic resiliency that FEMA’s Index describes in detail. The category encompasses a wide array of behaviors and choices that can either reduce or increase a community’s vulnerability to a range of perils. In areas like the Gulf Coast that are prone to severe wind events, mitigation can include the construction of windbreaks and reinforced flood barriers around commercial and industrial areas, and enhancements to the elements of a home most prone to damage during a wind event: the roof and the garage door.
In California, the mitigation effort applies to several perils, but most notably earthquakes and wildfires. The State has admirably stepped up its efforts to encourage the construction of new, more resilient residential and commercial structures. What’s urgently needed, however, is a plan to address older properties built before 1980. Such a plan would ideally incentivize all property owners, regardless of their earthquake insurance coverage, to do seismic retrofit improvements that would greatly reduce losses after a large quake.
Real World Example: Supporting “Home Hardening” in California
Lately in California, the focus has been squarely on wildfire. 2020 was sadly the most destructive wildfire season in modern California history. 4.2 million acres burned across the Golden State, surpassing the number of acres burned over the past three years combined. While California is hardly alone—Oregon and many other states suffered devastating fire events in 2020—the state has consistently led the nation in both the number of fire events and the economic losses associated with them.
Accordingly, California Governor Gavin Newsom has proposed a $1 billion plan as part of his 2021 budget submission to the Legislature that promises to reinvent and reinvigorate the state’s approach to risk mitigation.
Much of the news coverage of Governor Newsom’s proposal has focused on a call for more aggressive forest and land management, including funding for more prescribed burns. 40 percent of California’s forest lands are in private hands, so a coordinated approach that involves those landowners and supports their mitigation efforts is critical to achieving scale in mitigating wildfire risk. The State plans to increase funding for Cal Fire—the state agency for coordinating and executing both prevention and response—by $400m over 2020 to a total of $2.9b, a recognition of expanding risk and the importance of a robust state response.
However, there is a lot to say about the Governor’s proposal to greatly increase grants available to California communities, and even citizens, to support so-called home “hardening” actions. At the residential level, “hardening” can include mesh covers for vents, the introduction of ignition-resistant materials in eaves, roofs and walls, and the installation of thicker windows to reduce their risk of breaking and spreading embers inside a home.
These planned investments are sensible and often relatively simple, but they can be expensive for families, particularly in today’s economic climate. We believe that a holistic approach to mitigation of wildfire risk and all other disaster risks requires an acknowledgement of this fact. We applaud the Governor’s requested increases in support to local levels and to homeowners, but would also note that the government cannot alone fund the improvements necessary to reduce risk to an appropriate level. Homeowners are best served when a vibrant private market steps in to offer competitively priced solutions to complement any public monies available.
Now, more than ever, Americans need solutions that will help them take the necessary steps to reduce their exposure to disaster, and guard against loss of life and property. Each California home and business is a link in the chain that allows our communities to bounce back economically after a disaster. It’s time to create a future in which the California state government works in an independent but coordinated fashion with private mitigation companies, insurers, homebuilders and construction firms to address the resilience of our structures, no matter the age of a property or the income of its owners. A “hardened” California would save our state billions in losses, and potentially hundreds of lives each fire season. Governor’s wildfire proposal can serve as a template for many other U.S. states, and is a good starting point for expanded public/private partnerships to build a stronger, safer chain of communities in California and beyond.