CSHub Executive Director Jeremy Gregory Speaks at The National Press Club

March 5, 2019

On Tuesday, March 5, MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub Executive Director Jeremy Gregory and Dr. Gerry Bell, a hurricane climate specialist and research meteorologist at NOAA's Climate Prediction Center (CPC), were featured at the National Press Club in Washington D.C.

The two were panelists for the National Press Club Headliners Newsmaker press conference that focused on the effects of the 2018 hurricane season, the ongoing rebuilding process after the 2017 season, and how to prepare for future storms.

The discussion centered around the challenges of predicting wind storms and how emergency agencies can respond to and mitigate such hazards.

Dr. Bell began by explaining how hurricanes are predicted over various time periods.

When looking at the historical hurricane trends since 1950, he noted, decade to decade variability exists in addition to annual variability. While the 1950’s and 60’s was an era of high hurricane activity, the 1970’s to mid 1990s featured far fewer hurricanes and constituted a low activity period.

“Now since 1995, we are back into what is called a high activity era,” reported Dr. Bell, “we’ve been seeing more major hurricanes. That’s how strong these patterns are that control the hurricane season—not only do they occur year to year, they occur decades at a time.”

In this high activity era, the American and the Caribbean has experienced, on average 3-4 major hurricanes per year since 1995. This highly active period does not seem to be ending any time soon, Dr. Bell reported.  

And despite such high activity, the population of Florida has skyrocketed exponentially. An increasing populace and high storm severity mean that, “every time a storm threatens, millions of people are in harm’s way,” said Dr. Bell. Planning for storms, then, has become a much more challenging process.

To prepare for hurricanes and manage the safety of a growing coastal population, Dr. Gregory of MIT’s Concrete Sustainability Hub advocated for a different approach to dealing with hazards.

Instead of focusing almost entirely on disaster response, more planning and resources should go towards preparation and mitigation. The benefits to this approach are well known. According to the National Institute of Building Sciences, for every dollar invested in hazard mitigation there are four dollars that are saved.

“However,” noted Dr. Gregory, “as a society we don’t generally invest much in hazard mitigation. And when we look at how funds are allocated to FEMA and then spent, they typically spend billions of dollars per year on post-disaster recovery and only millions of dollars per year on pre-disaster mitigation.”

Though, the importance of disaster mitigation has received growing recognition. Last fall, in response to the high hazard costs of 2017, the Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018 was passed; this act increased FEMA’s funds towards pre-disaster mitigation. Yet, this figure is still only around 6% of the agency’s budget.

Local governments, not just the federal government, also have an impact on the hazard resistance since they enforce building codes which can dictate the storm worthiness of buildings.

“Generally, as a society we rely on changes to building codes to help us prepare for hazards such as hurricanes,” said Dr. Gregory, “but this is a long process that is fraught with many different challenges because there are numerous stakeholders with several different concerns. And of course, codes don’t always get it right. The images from Hurricane Michael and Mexico Beach Florida are very stark, with a vast majority of buildings demolished. And these buildings were built to code.”

Instead, Dr. Gregory proposed that hazard resilience could be spurred by creating incentivizes for builders and developers. A precedent for this is the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, which encourages builders to create more sustainable and efficient designs by increasing the value of buildings. The same approach can be applied to hazard resilience.

Some burgeoning examples of a certification for resilience already exist. One of these is the RELi rating system, which was created through the collaboration the US Green Building Council (the same group behind the LEED rating) and Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI).

But for these resilience certifications to take off, consumers need to be aware of the lifetime costs and benefits associated with resilient construction. “We see this often in other sectors,” said Dr. Gregory, “For example, when we buy a vehicle, the fuel economy rating is described in dollars—this how much you can expect to spend on fuel consumption for this vehicle.”

This lifecycle perspective, when applied to buildings, reveals a substantial cost-saving potential. “When we look at a residential building built just to code in New Orleans, for example, the likely repair cost due to hurricanes over its life would exceed its initial construction cost,” explained Dr. Gregory.

“Now when we compare that building to a more hazard resistant design—and this could just be a better fit between the roof and walls in residential construction, for example—it may have a slightly higher initial cost but, more importantly, a significantly reduced cost over the building’s life. As a consequence, we can look at a payback period as low as three years for some of these investments.”

Preparing for hurricanes requires more than just predicting future storms, it also means predicting the future costs to buildings due to these storms. Such a wholistic perspective could allow America’s growing coastal communities to save money, and more importantly, lives.