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Regulation and Recovery in the Aftermath of Hurricane Ian

October 3, 2022
Susanna Pho, CFM

Just a few days after Hurricane Ian took a devastating turn through the State of Florida, communities throughout the state are still taking stock of the impact to life and property. Residents in hard hit communities have already begun repairs on their homes and businesses, with recovery efforts stretching out over the coming months and years. In places like coastal Florida, there will also be complex discussions about how we continue to live safely and responsibly in areas vulnerable to increasingly frequent storms events. Experts have noted that the hurricane will fundamentally shift Florida's real estate and insurance markets.

Outside of these important conversations, recovery can be emotionally taxing, economically burdensome, and legally complex to navigate for affected individuals. Those seeking to rebuild will rely on a number of factors and one of the most important is the ability of their local governments to quickly document, permit, and guide reconstruction. 

At Forerunner we’ve spent the last few years working with communities on the frontlines of big storm events like Ian. Our partners span the country, ranging from cities on the west coast of Florida to counties in coastal New Jersey and on the Gulf Coast of Texas. As a result, we’ve had front row seats in witnessing how critically important, but sometimes fraught with challenges, the role of regulation and permitting is in the aftermath of big disasters. Here are some of our learnings:

Assessing damage over the next few weeks will be crucial for all stakeholders, but won’t be easy.

Damage assessments are critical to unlocking access to funding at all scales for stakeholders ranging from homeowners to states, and they often require multi-departmental collaboration in the days after a hurricane has passed (when utilities and cell phone access might not be available). The ecosystem that depends on these assessments is complex. Estimates of damages are necessary for quantifying losses for federal aid/reporting, for affording property owners access to critical funds, and for driving adaptation.

In upcoming months, structures that are deemed substantially damaged by Hurricane Ian will be required to meet present-day floodplain management regulations in order to be rebuilt. This requirement helps communities ensure that these structures are not as vulnerable to future flooding events but, practically speaking, enforcing substantial damage regulations can result in a significant investment for property owners – some of them will have to elevate their entire homes or make costly modifications to be compliant.

As a result, it's important that damage assessments are done correctly, but accomplishing this can be onerous for compounding reasons. It can be physically difficult to get to places impacted by storms and personnel is often limited. In places like Louisiana, we’ve seen regional coordination for mutual aid to fill this gap – but not all states have these resources. Because some residents start rebuilding almost immediately to protect their property, time is also of the essence. Lastly, not all communities have access to adequate tools to document damage efficiently in the field. Internet connectivity can be difficult to come by post-disaster, damage assessments require the collection of a broad range of data (images, geospatial data, in-field notes etc…), and data collection assumes an existing robust system for documenting construction. 

To address this last issue for our partners who have been affected by Hurricane Ian, the Forerunner team sprinted over this past week to add damage assessment features to our existing floodplain management software. These new tools are built to make it easier for teams to collect data in the field and immediately use it for outreach and permitting in the office. You can learn more about them here.

The paperwork burden will be huge and the permitting backlog will be long.

Recovery is a long road and communities can be unprepared for the massive amount of construction that occurs after large storms. In Florida, where building codes are some of the strictest in the country, getting a significant amount of construction done quickly can be near impossible. Building codes are only as good as their enforcement, and we’ve seen events like Hurricane Ian challenge floodplain managers and building officials to relax regulations in favor of speed. This can be damaging for communities that seek to drive adaptation to future climate and sea level rise scenarios with higher regulatory standards. 

In the months after Hurricane Ida in 2021, we heard from some of our partners that they had months-long permitting backlogs – with thousands of property owners waiting for permits to repair or rebuild their homes. Getting through the onslaught of construction often requires governments to leverage existing and emergent funds to hire additional employees, which in turn is predicated on the assumption that new team members can be ramped up quickly with minimal effort. Permitting departments can experience physical losses as well – when they lose their files or their offices to a hurricane, the loss can have reverberating consequences for residents.

To be better prepared for future events, we’ve found that a lot of our partners work with us as part of a larger push to invest seriously in digital tooling and document management. This allows them to deploy post-disaster on firm footing, with organized data that can be accessed from anywhere and workflows that don’t require a huge amount of training to learn. Creating efficiency after storm events is crucial, when every hour matters for homeowners who have experienced losses. 

The landscape of recovery is uneven, with some communities having better access to resources than others. 

The delivery of federal and state funding to hard hit areas is immensely complicated. Communities with fewer resources and limited experience applying for grants might not be able to secure as much capital post-storm as their better equipped peers, regardless of impact. This problematic resource distribution often exacerbates already existing historic and socioeconomic inequalities. It can also take years for post-disaster funding to reach property owners, with local communities acting as a first stop for frustrated residents stuck in limbo. Counties and states charged with fund administration face some of the same challenges that municipalities do – managing multiple grant programs requires coordination across jurisdictions and departments, robust reporting, and the ability to analyze a wide range of data to ensure equitable distribution.

There is some great knowledge-sharing and support between levels of government on this front, with teams across the country pulling together resources to champion best practices. We've seen our partner communities leverage the data that they collect in Forerunner to streamline both analysis and reporting. Being able to aggregate flood risk information geospatially at the property level allows them to access a more holistic understanding of their community for both internal decision-making and external communication.

Despite the challenges they might face, our team is constantly inspired by the dedicated work of our partners and their consistent commitment to engendering resilience. We’re grateful to have the opportunity to directly support their work – if you’d like to talk about what we do or what we’ve learned from our users, feel free to reach out. We’re always happy to chat.

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