Hurricane Damage Would Be Less with Stronger Building Codes

Nearly half of the states along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts received a poor rating from an insurance industry group that evaluated building codes and enforcement in hurricane-prone areas.

Texas, Mississippi and Alabama—three of the states most vulnerable to hurricanes—received three of the lowest scores out of 18 states rated by the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, an industry-funded research group.

Texas received 34 out of 100 possible points. Mississippi received 29 points and Alabama nabbed 30.

Only Delaware received a lower score—17—though one analyst said it’s misleading because Delaware’s counties have strong building codes.

The poor scores generally result from the absence of a mandatory statewide building code that sets minimum standards throughout a state for new construction. Without strong statewide standards, counties and municipalities often adopt weak codes that leave new buildings with minimal protection against flooding and powerful winds.

The insurance institute also analyzed each state’s code enforcement and requirements for inspectors and contractors to be licensed and receive periodic training.

Florida maintained its status as the state with the strongest building codes and enforcement, receiving 95 points out of 100. Virginia and South Carolina followed closely with scores of 94 and 92.

Building codes are increasingly seen as a way to counteract climate-related damage and the growing frequency and intensity of powerful storms and flooding. The insurance institute report, published this month, says that “building resilience is the key to reducing the potential financial costs” of natural disasters.

Insurance institute CEO Roy Wright said in a recent column that with rapid development growth in coastal areas that are vulnerable to hurricanes, “we are missing an opportunity to strengthen the next generation of houses against climate change.”

A.R. Siders, a climate-resilience expert at the University of Delaware, said that while the report highlights the importance of building codes, it also “underestimates the role of county and local governments,” which often adopt strict building codes of their own.

The institute report “may underestimate how much these states are doing to protect their residents,” Siders said in an email. She noted that in Delaware, all three counties have adopted strong building codes.

The wide range of scores given to 18 coastal states from Maine to Texas reflects the varying political conditions and experience with destructive hurricanes, said Craig Fugate, who has run the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

Florida developed the nation’s strongest statewide building code after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 destroyed tens of billions of dollars’ worth of property and exposed weak construction practices that left many homes unable to withstand the Category 5 storm, Fugate said.

“After Andrew, there was a lot of concern about building codes,” Fugate said in an interview yesterday.

The Florida Legislature strengthened state building codes again in 2005 and has resisted efforts by builders to weaken the codes, Fugate said.

“It was always this tension between developers and builders, who felt the code was too prescriptive, versus those who felt the state hadn’t gone far enough,” Fugate said.

In Mississippi, by contrast, the state Legislature blocked efforts after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 by then-Gov. Haley Barbour (R) to impose a strong statewide building code, Fugate said.

Mississippi adopted a statewide building code in 2014, according to the insurance institute report, but the state law lets municipalities opt out of following the code.

In states such as Texas and Alabama, many vulnerable municipalities have made up for the absence of a state mandate by adopting their own strong building codes, the report says.

The institute’s report marks the fourth time it has rated building codes and enforcement in hurricane-prone states. Scores have generally improved since the first rating in 2012, when the institute gave Mississippi a score of 4 and gave Texas and Alabama scores of 18.

Wright, the institute CEO and a former senior FEMA official, said the latest report shows the need for low-scoring states to improve and for high-scoring states to maintain their standards.

“Too often we see states, having avoided hurricanes for a few years, move to relax building codes,” Wright wrote in a recent column in The Hill.

Here are the institute’s latest scores for each state, with scores from 2012 in parentheses. The institute considers any score below 70 to be “poor.”

Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2021. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.



Source link