Strong building codes can save lives, reduce costs brought on by disasters

Stronger building codes save lives. That is why, with the start of the 2013 hurricane season, we reintroduced the Safe Building Code Incentive Act to encourage more states to follow the lead of the Garden and Sunshine states in adopting and enforcing model building codes as an important part of disaster mitigation.

Our home states have been hit hard by natural disasters. We have seen first-hand what nature’s forces can do to families, communities and businesses — from the Midwest’s devastating tornadoes to the Southwest’s drought and wildfires to the Eastern Seaboard’s enduring of Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy. 

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports there have been 25 major disasters over the past two years that have surpassed $1 billion in economic losses. The economic toll from these events — once the final costs from Sandy are tabulated — could near $200 billion. All of this, of course, is in addition to the greatest cost in these disasters: the lives lost.

States keeping building codes current with the latest International Code Council (ICC) standards are our first line of defense against natural disasters. First-responders, emergency management professionals and the insurance industry all agree that widespread adoption of model building codes can reduce loss of life, protect properties and also reduce the taxpayers’ burden following natural disasters.

It’s no surprise that this bill is so strongly supported. Simply put, homes and buildings constructed according to the most modern codes and best building practices are better able to withstand wind, water and fire when disaster strikes. 

A landmark study conducted by Louisiana State University’s Hurricane Center estimated that if strong building codes were in widespread use through the Gulf States, wind damage costs from Hurricane Katrina could have been reduced by 80 percent, saving taxpayers $8 billion. Another study by the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety found that Florida’s existing strong building codes reduced the severity of property damage from Hurricane Charley by more than 40 percent. And while Superstorm Sandy inflicted an enormous amount of damage in New Jersey and New York, the devastation would have surely been worse if we had not already been enforcing strong building codes.

The Safe Building Code Incentive Act would provide states that voluntarily adopt and enforce strong building codes with additional Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) funding after a disaster strikes. This funding could be used by local communities to help homeowners elevate their homes, buy out repetitively flooded properties and undertake other actions to prepare for natural disasters of all types. 

Currently, 16 states, including New Jersey and Florida, enforce model building codes that comply with the ICC standards. These states would be immediately eligible for an additional 4 percent in HMGP funds after a declared disaster. The bill would also be applied retroactively to before Oct. 29, 2012, so that New Jersey property owners affected by Superstorm Sandy can receive the extra assistance they need to rebuild stronger and more resilient homes. 

It is our belief and hope that the adoption of the Safe Building Code Incentive Act will ignite an important debate in state capitols across the nation that will culminate in strong building codes becoming the national norm, rather than the exception. The recent tornadoes that devastated Oklahoma not only remind us of what Mother Nature is capable of, but also how vital this legislation is. With climate experts predicting more severe weather patterns in the months and years ahead, it is imperative for Congress to act now.

We need a national strategy that increases our preparedness and helps ensure that new buildings are built to model codes. 

The Safe Building Code Incentive Act provides a good step forward  that would benefit first-responders, homeowners, businesses and taxpayers.

Menendez served as a member of the House of Representatives from 1993-2006 and has been a member of the U.S. Senate since 2006. He is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and also serves on the Banking and the Finance committees. Diaz-Balart has served Florida’s 25th congressional district since 2002. He serves on the House Committee on Appropriations.