FEMA recommends changes to Florida Building Codes and Land Use Regulations to Decrease Potential Damage from Future Hurricanes

Hurricane Michael struck the Florida Panhandle on October 10, 2018.  The hurricane was the most powerful storm to ever make landfall on the Panhandle, and, with its 161 mph windspeed, was the 4th most powerful hurricane to ever hit the US.  The storm was 350 miles in diameter and its eye alone was 25 miles wide.  It caused mass destruction and almost 18 months later, the area is still trying to recover.

After the storm, and then again in January 2019, FEMA sent a Mitigation Assessment Team (MAT) to the Panhandle to review the extent of the damage so as to determine what happened, what went wrong, and how we could be better prepared going forward. FEMA’s self-described goal of the MAT process is to

improve the building stock’s resistance to natural hazards by evaluating the key causes of building damage, failure, and success and developing strategic recommendations for improving short-term recovery and long-term disaster resilience to future natural hazard events. The MAT report provides information that will help communities, businesses, design professionals, building owners and operators, planners, emergency managers, code officials, and other interested stakeholders in rebuilding and designing more robust and resilient buildings, structures, and associated utility systems. Loss of life, injury, and property damage is reduced in future natural hazard events, thereby improving community resiliency.

The FEMA team looked at wind and coastal flooding resistance and considered the impacts on commercial and residential buildings.  It looked at the path of the storm and the natural characteristics of the area, and it went community by community in its research.

Ultimately, on February 21, 2020, it issued the Mitigation Assessment Team Report.  The report makes 69 recommendations to affect the building codes, construction and land use standards and regulatory options for state and local governments. Among these recommendations, several were pretty broad and if implemented, could have a significant impact on development.

  • More stringent building requirements for development or reconstruction in the areas of minimal and moderate flood hazard.

With Hurricane Michael, the MAT determined that the most damage and greatest number of insurance claims were not from Zone V, associated with the highest flood risk. Rather, the data showed that Zone A was the worst, followed by Zone X, where adherence to flood building standards is not required by NFIP.  Stronger requirements in Zones A and X would help to minimize future flood damage.

  • More freeboard than the minimum required whenever possible

If you could summarize the report in three words, at least as it relates to flood, it would be: elevation, elevation, elevation.  Based on FEMA’s study, the higher the building the better it fared.  Freeboard is the area between the building and the base flood elevation of the property.  As part of its discussion on changing its density requirements for property in the newly-expanded Coastal High Hazard Area, the City of St. Petersburg is planning to increase the required freeboard for multifamily development.  Miami Beach has implemented regulations requiring up to 5 feet of freeboard.  Be on the lookout for other jurisdictions increasing freeboard requirements.

  • Greater consideration of acquisition or relocation projects for existing buildings in areas highly vulnerable to erosion.

Not surprisingly, the report found that “Structures located closer to the shoreline are more exposed to wave impacts such was wave runup, scour, short-term and long-term erosion, debris impact, and storm surge, and thus also flood damage.” It recommended, at a minimum, that buildings be sited on properties farther back, and that long-term erosion trends be part of the analysis of where to locate buildings.

The report concluded that some of its most important conclusions match previous findings in prior MAT reports: building elevation is key and “stricter enforcement of code and implementation of floodplain management practices that go beyond the minimum requirements is needed to achieve far reaching resilience.”

The full 300+ page report can be found here.