FEMA’s Building Science Disaster Support Program utilizes partnerships to build better and strengthen resilience
By Joe Chappell
When a natural hazard event strikes, the results can be devastating. People might ask: how do we build back better? What can we do differently to prevent future damage? The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Building Science Disaster Support Program seeks to answer these questions.
The program draws on the combined resources of federal, state, local and private sector partnerships. It assembles and deploys teams of subject matter experts – called Mitigation Assessment Teams – to disasters. These professionals evaluate the performance of buildings and related infrastructure in response to the effects of natural hazards.
The teams conduct field investigations at disaster sites and work closely with local and state officials to develop recommendations for improvements in building design and construction. The teams also develop recommendations concerning code development and enforcement and mitigation activities that will lead to greater resistance to natural hazard events. Learning from their observations, the program provides subject matter expert support and technical assistance throughout the recovery and mitigation process.
Daniel Bass, an architect with FEMA’s Building Science Branch, has served as the program’s program manager for the last seven years, and he has been involved with teams since the late 2000s.
The program provides opportunities to improve resilience through activities such as the development of region-specific hazard mapping, promotion of building codes and standards and collaboration with professional organizations and other entities.”
“We pull from all manner of areas to gather our teams,” said Bass. “A typical Mitigation Assistance Team will include architects, engineers and physical scientists, but we also bring building code experts, contractors, construction material manufacturers, members of academia and anyone who can provide the expertise we need to perform our analysis.”
In January 2023, the program deployed a team of subject matter experts to southwest Florida. Thirty-two professionals, including multiple federal agencies, Florida state government officials, private sector and other organizations, leveraged their combined knowledge in the field to observe and study Hurricane Ian’s effects on the built environment.
Multiple teams were created to canvas over five counties. The teams traveled throughout the identified areas to assess the performance of residential, and non-residential buildings and structures subjected to the hurricane’s winds, storm surge, debris impact and flood loads.
Charles Baker, a member of the Hurricane Ian Mitigation Assistance Team and a program analyst with FEMA’s Floodplain Management Directorate, said the work is vital for creating a more resilient nation.
“We’re here to look at performance measures of structures to see how we can reduce risk in the future,” Baker said.
The findings from the Hurricane Ian Mitigation Assistance Team deployment reinforced the conclusions of past studies, such as the National Institute of Building Science’s Natural Hazards Mitigation Saves Study (2019) and FEMA’s own Building Codes Save Study: A Nationwide Study of Loss Prevention (2020). These studies reinforce that natural hazard-resistant building codes and standards save lives and money, and most importantly, help break the cycle of loss caused by disasters.
The benefits to communities impacted by the natural hazard event go beyond any disaster deployment. The program provides opportunities to improve resilience through activities such as the development of region-specific hazard mapping, promotion of building codes and standards and collaboration with professional organizations and other entities.
The program also offers numerous resources and guidance documents, which can be updated to respond to specific natural hazard events and bridge gaps in understanding. These documents can be deployed quickly to aid survivors to help them understand and apply best practices and sound engineering principles as they plan and prepare to rebuild. Communities are empowered to continually improve with the knowledge they gain and the networks they develop through program support.
Learn more about how FEMA’s efforts benefit communities nationwide at the Building Science Disaster Support Program webpage.
Joe Chappell is operations lead of the Building Science Branch at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).