Katrina Makes The Case

For Better Building Codes

By Harvey Ryland

When a storm smashes homes and businesses in three states into piles of kindling, devastates a major city, leaves hundreds of thousands of people homeless, and costs as much in disaster relief as the nation has spent to fight a war, the need for effective building codes and proper land use planning becomes clear.

The storm is Hurricane Katrina, which heavily damaged New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama when it roared ashore Aug. 29.

The need for better codes has been especially evident along the Gulf Coast, where Katrina was the most destructive, but by no means the only severe hurricane of 2005. It was one of three storms that at some point reached Category 5–the strongest possible. One of the others, Wilma, struck Florida just a few weeks after Katrina, making it the eighth hurricane to hit Florida in 15 months.

Although hurricanes have been in the news a lot lately, they are not the only disasters that could be made less destructive and deadly with better statewide building codes and land use planning. Earthquakes, floods, wildfires, tornadoes, hailstorms and blizzards are all major threats. In any year several natural disasters are bound to make national headlines.

Spring and summer are “tornado season,” yet there was a November thunderstorm along the Indiana and Kentucky border that produced what is likely to be the deadliest tornado of 2005. Natural disasters can occur anywhere, any time. States that enact building codes addressing the threats in their boundaries will benefit their citizens, businesses and the state government itself.

Building codes are minimum acceptable standards regulating the design, construction and maintenance of buildings, based on established scientific and engineering principles. Model codes developed by bodies such as the International Code Council and National Fire Protection Association address virtually every natural disaster that can befall the nation.

Proof of the effectiveness of proper building codes can be seen in Florida, where codes were strengthened after Hurricane Andrew blew through the state in 1992, causing more than $20 billion of insured damage. According to a study by Institute for Business & Home Safety engineers, the new codes were responsible for saving $40 million in one Florida county alone following Hurricane Charley last August.

Cost is usually the main argument against improved building codes. However, a cost and loss reduction benefit study of actual houses built to the new Florida Building Code showed a range of 3-to-10 percent higher costs, depending on how the builder currently constructs homes and whether low- or high-cost solutions were chosen for window protection.

The study concluded there was a potential to break even or for a reduction in equivalent long-term costs to the homeowner. Even using the high-end estimate of an additional 10 percent cost, that cost could be spread out over the life of the mortgage.

Other recent benefit/cost studies have indicated that adopting stronger minimum code provisions for natural hazard vulnerability reduction have positive benefit/cost ratios ranging between three and 16. In other words, for each $1 increase in construction costs, there is a long-term savings of $3 to $16.

In areas affected by tornadoes, for example, many of the changes in construction that could be employed would cost even less, but would go a long way toward connecting the materials we are already paying for in a way that will reduce the chance the structure will be torn apart or collapse.

Working in partnership with the property-casualty industry’s national advocacy trade groups, the Institute for Business & Home Safety is taking a leading role in testifying about the benefits provided by stronger statewide building codes where they currently don’t exist. In fact, just before the Thanksgiving holiday, Louisiana legislators voted to enact a statewide building code with strong standards for enforcement, showing they are keenly aware that this measure will improve public safety and reduce losses from future storms.

We believe the federal government could also initiate a number of incentives to encourage states to adopt and enforce statewide building codes without local amendments that weaken the minimum requirements. The Federal Emergency Management Agency could use code adoption and enforcement as criteria for providing additional pre- and post-disaster mitigation funds to states. We also suggest that federal mortgage agencies could provide lower interest rates or lower fees for mortgages on properties built to the latest standards.

These would be small prices to pay for buildings that will withstand future severe storms and other natural events, reducing disaster relief and rebuilding expenses, and sparing citizens everywhere the far-reaching toll these terrible events can take.

Harvey Ryland is president and CEO of the Institute for Business & Home Safety, the property loss reduction trade association of the property-casualty insurance industry, based in Tampa, Fla. The IBHS mission is to reduce deaths, injuries, property damage, economic losses and human suffering caused by natural disasters.

Infographic, with picture of Katrina damage:

Flag: Key Points

Head: Why Do Building Codes Matter?

Statewide building codes, backed up by proper enforcement, are critical to improved public safety and loss prevention during and after a major natural catastrophe. In addition to reducing or preventing deaths and injuries, effective building codes:

o Help reduce the frequency and severity of property insurance losses.

o Reduce the need for government disaster aid, putting less strain on government budgets and taxpayers.

o Improve a building’s resale value.

o Often reduce the amount of maintenance and repair work needed to keep a building in good shape.