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Q&As on the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Reconnaissance and Assessment of Damage from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita

1. Why did NIST assess damage from Hurricane Katrina when there are othergroups doing the same thing?

Each of the agencies involved in reconnaissance and performance assessments following Hurricane Katrina have differing missions.

NIST's reconnaissance and assessment of the performance of physical structures following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita was a coordinated federal study and the only effort that addressed the damage from both major hurricanes to strike the Gulf Coast (Katrina and Rita) and encompassed the broad scope of issues for major buildings, physical infrastructure (levees, bridges, water and wastewater systems, power, communications and industrial facilities), and residential structures.  Additionally, many of NIST's recommendations are applicable to hurricane prone regions of the country outside the areas directly affected by the two hurricanes.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has been focused on reconstruction of the flood control system protecting New Orleans and on conducting a detailed performance evaluation of the flood control system to guide the rebuilding and, where needed, improve the system beyond its current level of protection in the future.   

FEMA's Mitigation Assessment Team (MAT) was deployed in response to Hurricane Katrina to evaluate the performance of buildings both in and out of designated flood hazard areas. Based on the observations and documentation of the storms' impacts, the MAT evaluates the adequacy of current building codes, materials and construction practices in the region as well as the building standards and requirements contained in the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). The MAT team also documents the successes and best practices. FEMA's MAT after Hurricane Katrina focused on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and New Orleans. Four NIST engineers were on the FEMA MAT.

The Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (MCEER), with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), conducted reconnaissance of damage following Hurricane Katrina. Three members of the MCEER reconnaissance did participate in the NIST reconnaissance.

2. Were NIST's Katrina-Rita efforts coordinated with the NSF, FEMA and USACE?

NIST began coordination with FEMA and other agencies on Aug. 29, 2005.

Four staff from NIST deployed in cooperation with FEMA's MAT to observe damage to buildings and residential areas in coastal Mississippi during the week of Sept. 26, 2005.

NIST staff also coordinated visits to document breaches in the levees and floodwalls with USACE staff. Two USACE staff served on NIST reconnaissance teams in Louisiana and Mississippi. One NIST staff member is participating on the Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force (IPET) study of the New Orleans flood protection system.

Two staff from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) served on NIST reconnaissance teams in Louisiana and Texas.

When disasters occur, NSF provides Short Term Grants for Exploratory Research (SGER grants) to expert investigators from academia who are knowledgeable about disasters and their consequences and who can make a valuable contribution to an investigation team. NSF researchers affiliated with the MCEER participated in the NIST-led reconnaissance team. 

The federal agencies that have conducted work in the Gulf region following Hurricane Katrina have openly shared information on findings since the beginning. NIST also has shared draft versions of its reports with FEMA, USACE, FHWA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). 

3. Why wasn't the NIST Katrina-Rita reconnaissance effort conducted under the authority of the National Construction Safety Team (NCST) Act as an investigation?

NIST used the broadest possible authorities to give it maximum flexibility to assess the performance of physical structures during the Gulf Coast hurricanes last fall. The NCST authority is appropriate for investigating a building failure where substantial loss of life could or did occur. 

NIST was interested in the performance not only of structures that "failed" but also those that sustained "damage." Additionally, NIST was interested in damage not only to the structure but also to other building systems such as roofing, cladding and utility systems. NIST also examined infrastructure components such as pipelines, bridges and electrical distribution that is outside the scope of the NCST language. The NCST authority was not broad enough and, hence, not appropriate for the NIST Katrina-Rita effort.

4. If the USACE is currently rebuilding the levees and the NIST report is just now coming out, how will the report's recommendations be implemented?

USACE was part of the NIST reconnaissance, so all preliminary findings and recommendations concerning the levees were made available to USACE as they were developed. Thus, the rebuilding activities and the detailed technical studies that are being conducted by USACE is consistent with NIST's recommendations.
For example, the USACE IPET Force is conducting a detailed evaluation of the performance of the levees during Hurricane Katrina and, based on its findings, will issue a report with recommendations to improve the flood control system beyond the current rebuilding work. Recommendation 1 in the NIST report addresses the levees and calls for exactly this kind of response. 

5. USACE released the draft final report of the IPET study on June 1, 2006. How do the IPET study findings differ from those of the NIST reconnaissance?

The NIST reconnaissance team only made visual observations of levee and floodwall failures at several sites. The IPET study, in addition to visual observations, has included experiments and analytical studies to determine possible causes for the failures of levees and floodwalls. NIST has reviewed the findings of the IPET study for the locations observed by the NIST team, and NIST's findings are consistent with those of the IPET study.

6. How much did the NIST-led reconnaissance effort cost and how was it funded?

The total cost of the reconnaissance effort, through the dissemination of the final report, is approximately $800K. These funds came from redirecting other NIST funding to this effort.

7. Will federal rebuilding dollars be tied to implementing recommendations? If not, why bother with issuing the report?

NIST is not a regulatory agency and does not issue building standards or codes.

Once a reconnaissance or investigation is completed and recommendations for improvements are made, NIST actively works to have proposed code changes submitted, reviewed and adopted in a timely manner into the national and international model building codes (used as templates for codes legislated, implemented and enforced by state and local jurisdictions), standards and industry practices. 

In the case of the report on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, many of our recommendations do not require code changes. Rather, they recommend adoption of, strict adherence to, and solid enforcement of already existing model building codes.

Each of the recommendations in the NIST report identifies the specific entities at all levels of government (federal, state and local) and the private sector with a mission interest in the recommendations. NIST shared the report with each federal agency so identified and has scheduled briefings—in cooperation with FEMA—during June 19-21, 2006, for state and local building officials in the affected states.

8. If the NIST recommendations aren't implemented into code, isn't the research a waste of federal funding?

See answer to question number 7.

9. Does NIST know whether federal agencies responsible for implementing recommendations have already incorporated recommendations into rebuilding plans?

The federal agencies that have conducted work in the Gulf region following Hurricane Katrina have shared information on their findings openly. In several cases, agencies are already undertaking efforts that are consistent with the recommendations in NIST's report. Examples include: 

The USACE IPET is studying the performance of the New Orleans flood control system and will make detailed recommendations for improvements beyond the current rebuilding effort.

FHWA issued an initial guidance document on "Coastal Bridges and Design Storm Frequency" to provide regulatory and engineering rationale for considering both surge and wave forces, specifically for those coastal states affected by Katrina. 

FHWA is further developing a plan of action to coordinate with stakeholders on performing studies and research for coastal bridges vulnerable to scour and hydrodynamic forces. FHWA issued a solicitation for a study to develop retrofit strategies and options to mitigate damage to bridges subject to coastal storm hydrodynamic factors with the objective of producing guidance that can be rapidly implemented and incorporated into design standards as appropriate.

At the state level, Louisiana has adopted the International Building Residential, Existing Building, Mechanical and Fuel Gas Codes (developed by the International Code Council) for the 11 parishes affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita effective immediately for rebuilding. The codes go into effect statewide for new construction in 2007. This follows our recommendations for adoption, adherence and enforcement of current codes.

10. Who has reviewed and cleared the NIST Katrina-Rita report?

NIST established a rigorous review process for the report that included reviews coordinated by both government and outside experts as well as a formal interagency review.

11. An NSF-funded Independent Levee Investigation Team at the University of California, Berkeley issued a report on May 22, 2006, detailing damage assessments it made of the New Orleans levees and flood control system following Hurricane Katrina and, based on these findings, made recommendations for improvements. How does this team's findings and recommendations differ from NIST's?

Berkeley's effort was an in-depth investigation focused solely on the levees and flood control system in New Orleans. Along with a technical assessment of damage to these structures following Hurricane Katrina, the team also looked at institutional, organizational and policy issues that may have led to their failure.  NIST conducted a broad-based reconnaissance—not a detailed investigation—of the damage incurred from Hurricane Katrina that included as one aspect a damage assessment of the New Orleans levees and flood control system. NIST's findings are based strictly on technical observations and do not focus on programmatic, organizational or policy issues.

12. The front page of the Washington Post on April 13, 2006, had an article about "feds setting guidelines for rebuilding" in New Orleans. How does this fit in with what NIST is doing?

The Washington Post article of April 13, 2006, refers to the release of advisory flood data for New Orleans and much of the surrounding area. There are two parts to the announcement: technical and policy. On the technical side the announcements are consistent with NIST's recommendations. These include:

Raise levee heights and complete other levee work.

Allow the upgrade or replacement of existing flood I-walls and T-walls (these walls will have larger skirts, better foundation piles and splash pads for protection from erosion due to overtopping).

Provide 100-year flood protection to about 98 percent of the population in the New Orleans area.

NIST does not make policy recommendations (such as what specific flood level should be used in reconstruction or how much the buildings should be elevated in flood prone regions to obtain federal reconstruction funds or insurance).

13. How does NIST plan to disseminate the findings?

The NIST Katrina-Rita report will be available online and in print. NIST plans to conduct briefings for state and local officials in the affected states, members of Congress and their staff from the affected states. NIST also intends to follow up with standards and codes organizations on specific recommendations that impact them.

14. What is the plan for the implementation of NIST's recommendation at the state level?

NIST, in conjunction with FEMA, has worked with the states impacted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to set up briefings on the NIST report and recommendations with state and local officials for June 19-21, 2006.

NIST also is arranging briefings for members of Congress and staff from the affected states and making known its willingness to further share its findings and recommendations at the state and local levels.

15. What role did NIST play in the development of FEMA's MAT recommendations in the wake of Katrina and Rita? These include: reconstruction guidance, initial restoration for flooded buildings, design/construction in coastal zones, the ABC's of returning to flooded buildings, and attachment of brick veneer in high-wind regions.

Four NIST structural engineers participated in the FEMA MAT deployment, contributing their observations of damage to buildings based on their expertise to the FEMA MAT. NIST also has shared findings and recommendations from its reconnaissance with FEMA staff.

16. Did NIST participate in any of the FEMA MAT activities?

See answer to question number 15.

17. Did FEMA participate in any NIST activities?

NIST coordinated with FEMA beginning on Aug. 29, 2005, to plan deployments to the hurricane-affected areas. FEMA staff did not deploy with the NIST reconnaissance; however, NIST has shared the draft final reconnaissance report with FEMA.

18. Does FEMA's major multi-year effort to modernize the flood insurance rate maps adequately deal with NIST's recommendation to develop risk-based storm surge maps?  If not, why not?

FEMA's map modernization program uses storm surge models as an input to determine the 100-year flood risk in coastal areas. However, the current FEMA effort is not intended to provide as an output, information on storm surge height, current velocity, and wave height and period that would be useful for structural design in storm surge-prone regions. Development of storm surge maps to define the hazard basis for structural design will build on FEMA and USACE storm surge modeling being performed as part of the flood map modernization program under FEMA leadership. All of the relevant agencies have agreed to coordinate their efforts to ensure that the needs for structural design are adequately met.

19. Does NIST's recommendation on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale mean that it should not be used as the basis for making public warnings and evacuation decisions? 

No. The Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale assigns intensity to a storm based on its maximum sustained wind speed. While the definition of scale includes potential storm surge, storm surge values are highly dependent on the slope of the continental shelf and the shape of the coastline in the region of landfall. NOAA uses other analysis tools to more accurately predict the potential storm surge from an approaching hurricane and considers these values when producing hurricane advisories. NIST's recommendation suggests evaluating the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale's treatment of storm surge effects and determining if the scale should be modified to enhance its ability to communicate the hazard of an approaching hurricane to the public either by (1) completely decoupling storm surge from the scale or (2) better accounting for storm surge effects by factoring in site-specific conditions such as topography and bathymetry (depth from the sea surface to the seafloor) along with hurricane wind speed.

20. Does NIST's report make recommendations related to evacuation?

No, the focus of the NIST Katrina-Rita report was solely on the performance of physical structures in the regions affected by Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita.

21. What research is NIST conducting under the umbrella of the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program? 

NIST has an ongoing research project to develop and apply Database Assisted Design techniques for estimation of wind loads on building structures. This project was initiated before the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program began but is consistent with the intent of the program.

The recently released Windstorm Impact Reduction Implementation Plan discusses how FEMA  "facilitates improvements to national building codes and standards" (page 19) with no mention of NIST. What is NIST's role?

The reference that states that FEMA "facilitates improvements to national building codes and standards" comes under the heading of "Preparedness and Community Resilience," a role that is in keeping with FEMA's mission. NIST is active in the ASCE 7 Committee on Wind Loads and actively conducts research that leads to the development of improved tools for estimation of wind loads on structures and guidance for retrofit of structures exposed to high winds. 

22. Have the recommendations that NIST made in its report on the fires and collapses of the World Trade Center (WTC) towers been implemented into code?  Was this investment in research a good use of federal funds?

On March 24, 2006, the first 19 proposed changes to model building codes (used as templates for codes legislated, implemented and enforced by state and local jurisdictions) based upon and consistent with the NIST WTC recommendations were submitted to the International Code Council (ICC).

Taken together, they are a robust, reasonable and appropriate set of advancements and, if adopted, would represent a significant improvement in public safety over current practice.

The 19 proposed changes—submitted by building code experts associated with two ICC committees, the National Institute of Building Sciences and the U.S. General Services Administration—address areas such as increased resistance to building collapse from fire and other incidents, use of spray-applied fire resistive materials (commonly known as "fireproofing"), performance and redundancy of fire protection systems (i.e., automatic sprinklers), elevators for use by first responders and evacuating occupants, the number and location of stairwells, exit path markings, and fuel oil storage/piping.

All ICC members will have the opportunity to vote on the proposals at hearings scheduled for this fall. All changes passed, and those which did not pass but for which public comments are received, will then be up for approval—and inclusion in the ICC codes—when ICC government member representatives meet in the spring of 2007.

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Released June 9, 2006, Updated June 2, 2021