March marked the largest month-over-month increase in new home construction since 1990. New houses are now being built at the highest rate since 2006. But there is a problem: Homes are constructed in largely the same fashion as they were 30 years ago — despite a massive, climate-driven surge in the number of natural disasters we face each year. With hurricane season beginning this week, and forecasts predicting it could be another busy one, now is the time to examine our preparedness and make improvements in the face of an increasingly wrathful mother nature.
Last year was a hazardous one for homeowners, producing both the most destructive west coast fire season and the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record. Driven by warmer temperatures, hurricane season alone inflicted at least $60 billion in damages and threatened every mile of the Atlantic coast from Texas to Maine.
I have spent my career helping people prepare for and respond to natural disasters, and one pattern has always held true: No one thinks they will be affected until they are, and then they want to know whether the devastation could have been prevented. The answer is almost always yes. Homes can be built to withstand winds up to 130 miles per hour, which covers category two and three hurricanes. But too few are, even in states where we know it’s just a matter of time until the next hurricane strikes.
Every three years, our scientists at the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety produce a Rating the States report assessing building codes and related practices in the 18 Gulf and Atlantic seaboard states. We not only compare the actual codes implemented, but also the way individual states regulate practices related to code, such as training and licensing of both building inspectors and contractors. Our latest report shows much room for improvement.
One notable example is Texas, which last year — just three years after Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc on Houston — faced Hurricane Hanna, caught the edge of Hurricane Laura (which devastated southwestern Louisiana), and faced Tropical Storm Beta. Despite being such a frequent target, Texas lacks a statewide building code. While some local jurisdictions adopt their own codes, houses in other areas of Texas technically can be constructed of tin foil and toothpicks without violating state law.
On the opposite end of the preparedness spectrum is Florida, which ranks number one for building code safety in our report. Learning from the stark lessons of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Florida now boasts the most robust loss-prevention standards in the country. The state’s strong performance through Hurricane Charley in 2004 reinforced its commitment to a strong statewide code. Last year, it adopted additional provisions, including methods to seal roof decks to mitigate the effects of wind-driven rain after shingles are damaged. These changes were put into effect across a significant portion of the state just in time for this year’s boom in new construction.
For Florida and other regions that rank highly, the proof is in the pudding. When Hurricane Irma hit Florida in 2017, a FEMA report noted that structural damage observations were almost exclusively limited to homes built before Florida’s statewide code took effect. This reinforces what I personally saw as I walked through storm-ravaged towns in my role with FEMA. It’s also completely in line with the post-disaster research by IBHS, which consistently shows homes built to more modern codes outperform older homes.
That’s why it is frustrating to see nearly half of our Atlantic and Gulf states continue to build homes every year without a statewide building code.
Beyond that, far too many coastal states require absolutely no training or licensing for code officials or contractors. The result is that too many families will lack critical protection not just from hurricanes but also tornadoes and other severe storms.
Not only should low-ranking states improve, those states that rank highly must remain vigilant. Too often we see states, having avoided hurricanes for a few years, move to relax building codes. For example, there are groups in Connecticut right now who want to lower the standard for new construction and reroofing. Homebuilders are advocating against the ‘sealed roof deck,’ which we’ve proven can prevent a significant amount of the interior water damage. These groups claim their objections center around affordability, but the data doesn’t support these concerns. First of all, many of the upgrades commanded by stronger codes are relatively inexpensive. The sealed roof deck can cost as little as $500, and hurricane straps cost less than a dollar each. Some of these costs can be offset by lowered insurance rates. Most importantly, a FEMA report found that improved codes could help homeowners avoid $132 billion in losses by 2040.
But the clock is ticking if we hope to reap these rewards. Climate change is increasing the incidence and intensity of storms across many parts of the United States, and population growth in at-risk areas is expanding the number of potential targets. As construction of new homes booms, we are missing an opportunity to strengthen the next generation of houses against climate change. While I hope this year’s hurricane season doesn’t make us regret the missed opportunity, I’m afraid it might.
Roy Wright is the CEO of the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety and the former Chief Executive of FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program.