5 Years After Katrina Gulf Coast Building Codes Still Inadequate

August 30, 2010

Five years ago, Hurricane Katrina caused an estimated 1,300 tragic deaths as well as $41.1 billion in insured losses across six states. Louisiana and Mississippi suffered the brunt of Katrina’s wrath followed by Alabama. As we commemorate this terrible event of five years ago, sadly, some residents in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi continue to struggle to recover from the costliest and one of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history.

No one wants a repeat performance of the devastation caused by Katrina. To that end, the Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) calls upon Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi to adopt and rigorously enforce statewide building codes to protect their citizens.

Building codes and standards regulate the design, construction and maintenance of buildings. They help protect the health, safety and general welfare of a building’s users, and establish the minimum acceptable standards necessary for protecting people and property. When natural disaster strikes, everyone benefits from the enforcement of sound building codes.

Louisiana, which experienced $25.3 billion in insured losses, has made the most progress by adopting a statewide code. However, the state has struggled financially to establish, staff and manage inspection departments. Neither Mississippi nor Alabama have statewide building codes.

In Mississippi, ($13.6 billion in Katrina-related property damages) only seven of its 82 counties are required to enforce the wind and flood requirements of the 2003 International Building Code (IBC) and 2003 International Residential Code (IRC). Alabama ($1.1 billion in Katrina-related property damage) has failed to adopt strong building codes, despite widespread damage from Katrina.

Brick and mortar can be replaced, along with furniture and many other material possessions, but it is impossible to put a price on irreplaceable family heirlooms and the safety and security attached to a home. This is where the cost-benefit of the adoption and enforcement of modern building codes really becomes clear. In Florida, which has some of the nation’s strongest building codes, the performance of homes constructed to newer standards experienced a real-world test when four major hurricanes attacked the state from both coastlines in a six-week period between Aug. 13 and Sept. 28, 2004.

The first of these storms, Hurricane Charley, made landfall in Charlotte County, Florida. Afterward, IBHS building science engineers surveyed the damage to homes. The IBHS field research and subsequent analysis found that homes built to modern, well-enforced codes were 60 percent less likely to incur hurricane-related damage than homes constructed before the codes were adopted. The study also revealed that, if damage did occur, it was likely to be 42 percent less severe. Damage reductions like these mean a faster, less expensive recovery process for individuals and communities.

If keeping communities intact is not enough to spur code adoption, maybe financial incentives will be. Federal legislation is now under consideration to amend the Stafford Act. The amendments include financial incentives for states to adopt and enforce modern building codes by rewarding them with increased federal funding for post-disaster recovery, provided the codes adhere to the model wind and seismic provisions.

Opponents of building code adoption argue that modern construction practices will make homes too expensive. This simply is not true. South Carolina grappled with building code issues following Hurricane Hugo (1989) which caused $4.2 billion in property damage. During the past two decades, South Carolina has made great strides toward strengthening its building stock against future damage by adopting and operating under the guidelines of the 2006 IBC and IRC. The catalyst has been two-fold: concern for the safety of its citizens and the recognition of what’s at stake.

The state has experienced tremendous growth since Hugo hit, particularly in coastal counties. By 2030, the South Carolina population is predicted to grow to more than 5.4 million people – many of whom will be living in harm’s way. Currently, South Carolina has approximately $200 billion in insured property along its coast. State officials realize it is not a matter of if, but when, the state will be struck by another major storm and took proactive steps and is much better prepared for storms.

The progress made in South Carolina and the continuing efforts in Louisiana demonstrate that it is possible to adopt strong building codes without radically increasing the cost of construction. By acting now to adopt statewide building codes, Alabama and Mississippi can position themselves to better protect their vulnerable populations and position their state to recover more quickly and less expensively when the next hurricane hits.

Edwards is director of Code Development at the Institute for Business & Home Safety.

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