Natural disasters could be far less damaging with better building codes

Natural disasters could be far less damaging with better building codes
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From the mudslides in Montecito, Calif., to the flash floods in Ellicott City, Md., Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas and the wildfires that swept through Northern California, 2018 saw natural disasters of every type affect communities across the country. In total, the president declared 59 major disasters last year. And these disasters came at a high cost, with more than 200 people killed and countless more injured — and more than $91 billion in property damage.

In fiscal year 2018, FEMA, through its Disaster Relief Fund, invested more than $20 billion to support recovery efforts, providing aid to repair damage and construct new homes, small businesses, schools, hospitals, police stations and community centers. The truth, however, is that many of these newly rebuilt and repaired structures will face new hazards and natural disasters — whether it’s in the next five years or 50 years from now — and they will need to be prepared. Fortunately, there is a highly cost-effective strategy for ensuring that these structures can handle it: building codes. 

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A recent study by the congressionally-established National Institute of Building Science (NIBS) found that using the latest model building codes provides a benefit of $11 for every $1 invested through earthquake, flood and wind mitigation benefits, with a $4 to $1 wildfire mitigation benefit. These ratios represent avoided casualties, property damage, business interruptions and insurance premiums. They quantify the importance of modern codes that we see every year when natural disasters strike.

Just this past year, modern codes ensured that the state of Alaska sustained minimal damage and a quick recovery following the Port MacKenzie earthquake. In Florida, following Hurricane Michael, buildings built to modern code requirements fared far better than buildings built to older standards. 

Despite the demonstrated benefits of up to date codes, their adoption is not consistent across the country. Many states set code baselines statewide, while in 20 states local governments determine what, if any, building codes apply in their jurisdictions. In some states where local governments control code adoption, upwards of 25 percent of residents are subject to codes that are nine or more years old. Several states with statewide code adoption are using codes that are just as dated. This variation leads to real-world ramifications. The International Building Code, which is adopted in every state, requires storm shelters for schools in tornado-prone regions. Yet, of the 21 states that regularly face tornado risk, only a third require tornado shelters to be built in schools.

With the need for modern code requirements so clear, and the President and leaders from both parties calling for increased investment in our nation’s infrastructure, it makes sense for any infrastructure modernization legislation to require new and renovated buildings be built to the latest building codes. Schools, public housing, hospitals, shelters and other public amenities are all pillars of our communities and especially important in meeting the needs of vulnerable populations. Ensuring they are constructed to modern codes protects the people who use and occupy these structures as well as the federal government’s own investment.

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These standards also track with FEMA’s requirements for post-disaster public assistance, HUD requirements for post-disaster community development and the federal government’s requirements for its own buildings. To do otherwise, locks in avoidable risk over investments with 75-year lifetimes or more.

An infrastructure bill with minimum code requirements is the simplest and most cost-effective way to avoid long-term risk and increase natural disaster mitigation in communities across the country.

William R. Bryant, MCP, CBO, is the board president of the International Code Council and a Code Official for Anne Arundel County, Md.

R. David Paulison served as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) under President George W. Bush from September 2005-January 2009 and is senior advisor to the BuildStrong Coalition.

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