This article first appeared in the University of Colardo, Boulder's publication CU Boulder Today.
Communities that act now to protect themselves from future hazards like earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and wildfires can save themselves as much as $11 for every $1 that they initially invest, according to recent research.
The findings are part of an update to “Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves.” This landmark report was first published in 2005 by the National Institute of Building Sciences and was led by CU Boulder’s Keith Porter, who also spearheaded the most recent findings.
The report examines how homeowners, developers and municipalities might save lives and money in the long term by implementing a variety of mitigation efforts before a disaster strikes. That might mean raising houses above floodplains or strengthening office buildings against earthquakes.
There’s a lot to be gained from that kind of forward thinking, said Porter, a research professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering.
- $11 for every $1 spent: Meeting building codes
- $6 for every $1 spent: Applying federal grants for mitigation
- $4 for every $1 spent: Exceeding building codes
- $4 for every $1 spent: Improving utility, roads, highways and railroads
- $4 for every $1 spent: Protecting communities from wildfires
“Natural hazard mitigation saves,” Porter said. “Mitigation can be a costly decision, but this study should help people to make a more informed choice about how to save their property and their wellbeing.”
His research shows that communities in the United States stand to save billions of dollars by making sure that new structures meet, or exceed, the International Building Code—a set of widely-adopted recommendations for designing safe buildings. Such measures could also prevent an estimated 600 deaths and one million injuries at the same time.
Porter and his colleagues released their findings this week at the Building Innovation 2019 conference in Washington, D.C.
The report comes after a record-breaking wildfire season in California. This year, one blaze alone—the Camp Fire—killed more than 80 people and consumed roughly 14,000 homes in the northern part of the state.
It also matters for Colorado, where large numbers of residents are vulnerable to wildfires and flooding. Wildfires burned hundreds of thousands of acres of land in Colorado in 2018—one of the worst fire years on record for the state. Historic flash floods in September 2013 destroyed or damaged thousands of homes across the Front Range.
More stringent codes can limit some of the biggest losses from such events, Porter said. Most states and communities in the U.S. have requirements for how buildings weather natural hazards. But research suggest that they may not go far enough, and many older buildings still fall short of these codes.
Porter pointed to the case of existing codes that require homes to sit a foot above the 100-year flood level. That is the theoretical height of a severe deluge that might occur only once every 100 years.
“That doesn’t make your house floodproof. There’s still a significant chance that a flood would be higher than that,” Porter said. “It’s actually cost-effective in many places to build up to 5 feet above the base flood elevation.”
To put numbers on the benefits from such mitigation efforts, Porter and his colleagues turned to a wide range of data to write their 2005 report. That includes records from past disasters and computer simulations that test how buildings might respond to future floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires.
What they found in the most recent update was staggering: While the benefits vary from place to place, communities in the U.S. on average may save $11 in the decades ahead for every $1 they spend now to meet current building codes. Going beyond those codes, too, can bring an extra $4 for every $1 spent.
Those gains come in a variety of forms. When buildings are built to better withstand earthquakes, for example, more stores stay open after a big tremor and fewer people go to the hospital for injuries.
The new round of numbers, together with a related report published last year, were also the first to look at the benefits that come from safeguarding buildings against wildfires. According to the team’s calculations, communities living at the edges of forests can save $4 for every $1 they spend to plan ahead for flames. Common recommendations include creating “defensible” spaces free of brush and other flammable material around homes.
“As we saw from the California wildfires last year, that’s crucial,” Porter said. “If you don’t build for fire resistance, you run a much higher risk of having your home burn down.”
He acknowledges that those sorts of measures can be costly in the short term. But Porter hopes that his group’s findings will motivate governments and other entities to do more to help home and business owners plan for the inevitable.
“You can spend money up front to better prepare for a disaster, and that should save you in the long run,” Porter said.
Image: Wash Out. Flash flooding in Jamestown, Colorado in 2013. (Credit: Steve Zumwalt/FEMA)