Congress has an important role to play in helping our nation prepare for and respond to natural disasters. Every region of our country is vulnerable to one or more devastating risks, such as tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, hailstorms, ice and snow, and wildfires. By helping individuals, businesses, and communities take protective action before disaster strikes, Congress can save lives, encourage personal responsibility, enhance market-based solutions, promote long-term fiscal restraint, reduce public sector response and recovery costs, and create a more resilient society. Effective loss mitigation is the common denominator for achieving these benefits.
What is “Mitigation?”
Mitigation encompasses a wide range of activities that should be undertaken to increase the likelihood that homes, workplaces and essential public buildings can survive a natural or human-induced catastrophe. These include:
- Strengthening new construction through regionally appropriate building codes
- Utilizing voluntary “code-plus” construction techniques and guidelines
- Properly retrofitting existing homes and commercial structures to improve resiliency
- Disaster readiness and post-event operational continuity planning
- General and specific land use planning that addresses both natural and man-made hazards
The term “mitigation” comes from Latin roots; it is not a word used in everyday conversation and sometimes is confused with, or erroneously related to, a sound-alike: litigation. Other, more commonly used terms that essentially mean the same thing as mitigation include: loss prevention, loss reduction, loss control, disaster safety and structural adaptation. Regardless of the specific term used, the goal is always the same: to reduce human and economic losses due to natural disasters, seasonal weather, mechanical malfunction, and human activity (accidental or intentional).
Why is Mitigation Important?
Saving lives, protecting homes and preserving communities is a public health objective, economic imperative and humanitarian obligation. Virtually every American lives in an area that faces one or more natural disaster risks; for this reason, emphasizing disaster preparedness and response must be a national priority:
- U.S. Census Bureau data indicate that, by 2006, 34.9 million people were seriously threatened by Atlantic hurricanes, compared with 10.2 million people in 1950.
- Approximately 40 percent of the U.S. population resides in counties that face medium to high seismic risk.
- One-quarter of U.S. residents live in a county that has been ravaged by wildfire during the last 25 years.
- In 2010, there were 19 named tropical storms (12 of which were hurricanes, with 5 reaching Category 3 or higher), more than 1500 tornadoes (the latest occurring on December 31 and causing 6 deaths), record snowfalls, widespread flooding due to winter storms, spring melts, tropical storms, and other severe weather events.
Mitigation and Personal Responsibility
Mitigation encourages personal responsibility by providing the tools that people need to protect themselves and their families from harm. For example:
- Federal, state, and local emergency managers advise that residents may need to survive on their own after a disaster. Every American should have a disaster essentials kit that includes food, water, communications tools, and other supplies in sufficient quantity to last for at least three days.
- Likewise, every American should have an emergency evacuation plan not only for disasters, but also for fires or other incidents in the home. The plan should include physical evacuation routes from the house and the neighborhood. Another aspect of personal responsibility during a disaster is to heed the expert evacuation advice of local emergency managers.
- Having a tornado safe room or a storm shelter can provide a refuge in the event of a violent and unexpected tornado or other high-wind event, saving lives even if the rest of a home is severely damaged or destroyed.
- There are also well-documented physical and property protection measures that homeowners should take to reduce damage and dislocation from almost every type of natural disaster. For example, installing impact-resistant windows, and/or deploying effective window and door protection to prevent wind and water intrusion in hurricane-prone areas, using fire-resistant building materials and creating a defensible space in wildfire-prone areas, and ice dam prevention for severe winter weather.
Mitigation as a Market-Based Solution
Successful auto safety and “green building” campaigns demonstrate it is possible to change the way people think about their safety, as well as the purchase and management of significant personal assets leading to more market-based solutions:
- When people can visualize the added safety benefits and additional financial value of stronger building components and more cohesive building systems, they will want to build their homes to higher standards. While mandatory building codes will still play a role in the basic life safety aspects of property protection, voluntary “code-plus” standards can provide the basis for motivating builders to offer construction upgrades that include property protection.
- Similarly, the market for home retrofit tools and methods is likely to grow as the importance of mitigation is better understood. Current marketing programs (e.g., hardware store “hurricane season discounts”) are likely to expand if both homeowners and suppliers see their mutual benefit.
- As more businesses realize that preparing for disasters is fundamental to their ongoing operations, they are likely to invest resources into critical business continuity programs.
- Businesses also may see a competitive advantage in showcasing their preparedness for customers and supply chain partners. This is one of the rationales for the PS-Prep Program, a 9/11 Commission-recommended voluntary partnership between the Department of Homeland Security and the private sector to improve business preparedness and resilience in the face of natural disasters and other types of emergencies.
Mitigation and Fiscal Restraint
For private property owners and government, mitigation is a very sound investment, almost always resulting in significant long-term savings including reduced public sector response and recovery costs:
- Over the past 20 years, the average number of presidential disaster declarations has risen steadily.
- According to the Public Entity Risk Institute at the University of Delaware, total federal disaster spending from 2000 to 2007 cost over $81 billion, or $736 per American household. This is a conservative estimate because FEMA spending for some more recent disasters is ongoing. It also excludes the amount of state and local match that may be required under terms of an approved Presidential disaster declaration.
- Direct and indirect benefits of effective mitigation extend broadly. According to a study conducted by the Multi-hazard Mitigation Council (MMC) for the FEMA, every dollar spent by FEMA on hazard mitigation grants reduced post-disaster relief costs by $3.65—a savings for all taxpayers, regardless of where they live.
Over the long-term, mitigation trades off an investment today against future losses. This creates a greater sense of inter-generational equity and a way to avoid the need for future generations to pay for damage that could have been reduced or avoided entirely through cost-effective property protection measures taken now.
Mitigation and Community Resilience
Resilient communities are capable of bouncing back from adverse situations with minimal downtime to basic community, government, and business services. Mitigation enhances community resiliency by protecting property, improving disaster planning and response, and creating a culture that is focused on long-term economic health and social welfare:
- While everyone wants their home to escape damage, few would want to live in the last house standing in a community destroyed by natural disaster. That is why comprehensive property mitigation efforts are critical to maintaining community vitality.
- Residential, commercial and public infrastructure mitigation must be integrated in order to protect both lives and livelihoods:
- Even if a home is undamaged by a storm, a homeowner still may be forced to leave their community if their employer is no longer open for business.
- Conversely, a business may be fully prepared for a disaster, but unable to remain open or re-open post-catastrophe if the homes of employees sustain so much damage that they have no place to live.
- In order to ensure disruption after a disaster is short term, residents and businesses will require rapid recovery of critical public capabilities and services, including working utilities, passable roads and bridges, and operational schools.
- Following a large- or small-scale disaster, the response process should transition as quickly as possible to rebuilding a stronger community at every level. For this to happen, the community must understand its potential risks and prepare response and rebuilding plans for speedy mobilization.
- The rebuilding and recovery processes afford unique opportunities to strengthen property and the fabric of communities, provided that concrete guidance and realistic plans and public priorities are in place to promote this type of recovery.
Mitigation as a Locally Controlled Solution
The notion that mitigation must be fostered at the local level is a cornerstone of many recent national preparedness efforts. While all levels of government must play a coordinating role, local engagement is the key to success:
- “Building a resilient nation doesn’t come from a top down, government only, command-and-control approach; it comes from a bottom-up approach; it comes from Americans connecting, collaborating.” Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in a speech to the American Red Cross.
- According to FEMA, the concept of a tiered (federal, state, local) response places primary responsibility at the lowest possible jurisdictional level to be supported by additional capabilities on an as needed basis—“incidents begin and end locally, and most are wholly managed at the local level.”
- Well-prepared communities place fewer demands on state and federal resources, resulting in long-term societal savings and benefits.
We encourage Congress to learn more about mitigation and the cost-effective ways to prepare and strengthen our nation.