Even though predicted to be a below-average hurricane season, two tropical storms already have made landfall in the U.S. Of all types of severe weather, hurricanes are the most costly natural disaster in recent decades, representing seven of the ten most expensive catastrophes in terms of insurance claims since 1992. Strong, well-enforced building codes can help drive such losses down and help make coastal communities more resilient.
As the property insurance industry’s building science research arm, the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) focuses on identifying effective, workable ways to reduce damage from severe weather, like hurricanes, by strengthening building codes and standards, as well as improving building products and installation, construction practices, and repair and replacement techniques.
Building codes today are a patchwork of life safety-focused rules generally established and applied on a state-by-state basis (based on national models) – although too often, this is even a local issue, due to the absence of uniform, minimum statewide standards. To highlight this issue and provide a roadmap for states to improve their code systems, IBHS evaluated residential building codes in the 18 most hurricane-prone states along the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts. The initial IBHS Rating the States report (2012) was updated this April. Each state was assigned a score on a 0-100 point scale, taking into account the areas of code adoption and enforcement, building official training and certification, and licensing requirements for contractors. There is a disturbing variation – and several under-performers – among the states.
The 2012 report has been well-received as a wake-up call, with several states acting to improve their building code systems. The 2015 report finds most states with strong building code systems in place at the time of the original 2012 report remain committed to building safety; they updated their codes to the latest model code editions, or are in the process of doing so and maintained effective enforcement systems. Unfortunately, a number of states took no action to improve their code systems, and a few have weaker systems in place now than in 2012.
Overall, ten states – Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Texas – improved their scores from the 2012 report. Six states – Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey and New York – lost points. Two states, Virginia and Delaware, received the same score. Virginia had the highest score of 95, highlighting their exemplary building code system. This report demonstrates that while much improvement has been made, there is still much work needed to ensure strong, uniform building codes become the standard in these high-risk areas.
Strengthening the building codes in hurricane-prone regions would be a significant step toward reducing the property damage and insurance claims that result from these powerful storms. In fact, a study done by IBHS, the University of Florida and the FEMA Mitigation Assessment Team following Hurricane Charley, which struck Florida in 2004, found that modern building codes reduced the severity of insurance losses by 42 percent and the frequency by 60 percent.
Stronger codes in hurricane regions also benefit other parts of our nation. Better construction standards will reduce property damage, which can potentially save billions of dollars in federal disaster response and recovery costs.
Strong, well-enforced statewide building codes are an essential component of community resilience and must be addressed in disaster mitigation strategies. When buildings are stronger and more resilient, everyone wins. Home and business owners are able to recover faster and local jobs, communities, and tax bases are maintained. This is not a matter of whether or not it is the right thing to do. It is. Because every citizen in every state deserves a well-enforced minimum (because that is what codes are) level of property strength in the buildings in which they live and work.