A Culture of Mitigation through Education

I learned the meaning of mitigationwithin the context of emergency management in 1992 when I worked in the recovery phase after category 5 Hurricane Andrew had devastated a wide swath in urban southeast Florida. Before then I knew the grammatical meaning of the word: drinking a cool glass of water to mitigate your thirst, or taking some aspirin to mitigate a headache, that’s what mitigation meant to me at the time.

I began hearing the word mitigation being used in a rather specialized fashion during working meetings involving representatives from Miami-Dade county agencies and municipalities, FEMA, the State of Florida and various other federal public agencies, in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew. Then in early 1993 FEMA retained my services to work with a team working on damage assessment and processing applications for public assistancefunding from FEMA to repair damage to public facilities in Miami-Dade County.

At that time I was specifically charged with reviewing the process of public assistance grant review with the objective of developing methodology to identify opportunities for mitigation that could be funded collaterally with work to repair and rebuild damaged buildings and facilities. In tackling this mission I found a definition in Title 44 of the Code of Federal Regulations (44 CFR) Section 206 that basically stated that the public assistance program could be used to fund hazard mitigation defined as cost effective measures to reduce the potential for damage to a facility from a major disaster, and then proceeded to define what major disaster meant. So here was a definition of mitigation from the perspective of regulatory languagerelated to a federal law enacted to provide legal authority for the practice of emergency management in the USA, the law was known as the Robert T. Stafford Act or just Stafford Act  for short.

Beyond the intricacies and nuances of regulatory and legal language I soon recognized mitigation as a simple yet powerful and far reaching concept, which could make a critical difference between the impact of a hazard and a disaster. In simple terms the practice of hazard mitigation involved taking advantage of ongoing repairs of damaged buildings to identify and implement additional measures to harden the building, to reduce the potential for damage the next time that building would be impacted by the same type of hazard. In other words practicing mitigation meant going beyond just repairing a building to its pre-hazard conditions, and in fact doing something new and different to strengthen the structure or the building envelope to enhance its capacity to sustain the impact of a hazard. To simplify,  mitigation is about damage reduction.

FEMA assigned me the responsibility for unifiying and managing two mitigation programs, the public assistance mitigation program also known as 406 Mitigation for Section 406 of the Stafford Act that authorized it, and the hazard mitigation grant program or 404 Mitigation (also HMGP) for Section 404 of the Stafford Act for the Hurricane Andrew disaster declaration and three other major disaster declarations that were active in 1993. This was the first time in its history that FEMA had brought both programs under a single management structure on the field.

The biggest obstacle to carrying out these mitigation program responsibilities was the lack of knowledge among the various parties required to participate in each project, which lead to arguments as to what constituted mitigation? What was the difference between an improved project and a mitigation project under public assistance regulations? What damages could be considered in assessing the merits of proposed mitigation? How did you measure the effectiveness of proposed mitigation measures? These conditions led to misunderstandings among representatives from federal, state and local agencies, which in turn dragged the program down. It became clear to me we needed to go back to square one, establish a common language and the proper methodology for measuring effectiveness, to then regroup and start again.

Beyond the problem noted above, perhaps the biggest challenge was to move from the regulatory framework of 44 CFR to actual practice of mitigation activities in the field. The situation that existed when I was charged with managing the mitigation program was one of being heavy on regulation and light on practical field experience, which was made more complicated by the fact that most of those involved in the process representing local agencies, the state and even FEMA, had ittle to no professional experience in building design or construction and consequently had no basis for understanding the causality of damage, and what could be done to enhance and strengthen existing building to reduce the potential for damage from recurring hazards in the future; most of the ‘players’  involved were knowledgeable on the regulatory requirements of both mitigation programs, but had no idea of how to convert such knowledge to actual ‘brick and mortar’ mitigation in the field.

It was clear there was a need for education.  I recognized early on that beyond the immediate need for educating all sectors involved at the time in mitigation activities under the various disaster declarations including Hurricane Andrew, there was an even bigger need to educate professionals in many fields especially those in the building design and construction professions, building managers, planners, but also public officials and policy-makers, insurance companies and the public at large. There was a need to educate all of this sectors about what mitigation was, its benefits, and on how to actually practice mitigation in the field by using building design or retrofit criteria,

I saw a critical need for creating a culture of mitigation through education. I also came to believe there was, at the time, a need for a new emergency management paradigm; one where mitigation would be at the core of the model supporting preparedness, response and recovery functions.

I tackled these needs by designing and launching an in-house training program for state and FEMA staff deployed at the Hurricane Andrew disaster field office that operated out of a building in the Miami International Airport campus, which had at one time been the headquarters for by then defunct Eastern Airlines. The program consisted of a series of 1/2 day workshops coupling regulations with an ‘engineeering’ approach to hazard mitigation in the field, and review of the methodlogy for benefit-cost analysis of proposed mitigation projects.

In 1995 I introduced a graduate-level course in “Hazard Mitigation” for the Master in Construction Management program at Florida International University (FIU), Department of Construction Management, College of Engineering and Computing, which was soon followed in 1996 by a second graduate-level course of “Vulnerability Assessment”. The rationale for these courses was to provide practical tools for professionals in the fields of building-design and construction to apply in the daily practice of their professions. Both of these courses were pioneering efforts within the Florida State University System of eleven public universities, and some of the first such courses nationwide.

Recognizing that many professionals and practitioners in fields such as emergebcy management, facilities management, plant operations, hospital administration and others who could benefit from courses such as those mentioned before either had no interest in full college courses, or no time to take semester-long courses, I developed an outreach program – the Emergency Management and Hazard Mitigation Certificate Program – which launched in 1997 as a joint venture between the International Hurricane Center and FIU Division of University Outreach. The program consisted of a series of two-day seminars given on Friday/Saturday about every six weeks to facilitate participation from working professionals.