It would be easy to assume that in a region that's extremely vulnerable to the ravages of hurricanes and other severe storms, building codes would be considered a critical aspect of protecting the lives and properties of residents—particularly after barely surviving the most damaging storm in its history. But five years after Hurricane Katrina swept across the Gulf Coast, causing about $41.1 billion in insured losses in six states, state-mandated building codes are still either nonexistent or weakened by a lack of enforcement in the three most severely affected states: Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana.
So finds "Five Years Later—Are We Better Prepared?", a recent report published by nonprofit scientific research organization the Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS).
"With the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina occurring, it was timely to see what had changed over the past five years," says Wanda Edwards, the report’s co-author and IBHS director of code development.
IBHS researchers reviewed laws that have been enacted or failed to pass state legislatures in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana; analyzed the strength of building codes that have been enacted since 2005; and evaluated the enforcement of those codes. The result was "disappointing," Edwards notes.
The research also found that while Louisiana has been proactive in adopting a statewide building code based on the 2006 International Building Code (IBC) and the 2006 International Residential Code (IRC)—without weakening their wind and seismic provisions—its potential benefits are somewhat reduced by both a lack of funding for code enforcement and by the learning curve faced by design and construction professionals. But Edwards acknowledges that these are growing pains typically faced by any new program of building codes and enforcement.
"When you start with nothing, trying to form inspection departments, get them staffed, and educate contractors, builders, and inspectors is trying, and Louisiana is having trouble finding enough people to be inspectors," Edwards says.
Attempts to implement a state building code in Mississippi have been resisted successfully, the report notes, although some progress was made in 2006 with the formation of the Mississippi Building Code Council. However, the code council no longer operates. Only seven of 82 counties in the state are required to enforce the wind and flood guidelines of the 2003 IBC and the 2003 IRC, despite the fact that all counties within the state were affected by Hurricane Katrina.
Likewise, attempts to adopt a statewide building code in Alabama also have been unsuccessful, IBHS researchers found. There are some limited codes in existence governing the design and construction of state-owned buildings, hotels/motels, and movie theaters. Some progress was made in 2009 when Alabama's legislature passed a law requiring state-admitted insurance companies to reduce the insurance premiums on newly built, rebuilt, or retrofitted homes that meet specified hurricane- and windstorm-resistant standards.
"There's a variety of reasons people are opposed to mandatory building codes," Edwards explains. In Mississippi and Alabama there tends to be an attitude of "home rule," with many residents feeling they should be able to build on their personal property in any way they wish, unrestricted by building standards. "Some home builders also are opposed because they feel it increases the cost of construction," she adds.
Research conducted by the IBHS after 2004's Hurricane Charley struck Charlotte County in Florida found that homes constructed to modern codes were 60 percent less likely to suffer hurricane-related damages than homes constructed pre-code adoption. Moreover, the study found that in instances where damage did occur to homes built to meet modern code requirements, the damage was likely to be 42 percent less severe than that incurred by pre-code built homes. One study commissioned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency through the National Institute of Building Sciences’ Multihazard Mitigation Council found that for every $1 spent toward reducing the risks of losses due to natural hazards such as hurricanes, the nation gains $4 in future benefits, such as reduced costs of disaster recovery.
"We want to see every state have a statewide mandatory model code in place and mandatory enforcement," Edwards says. Protecting residents' dwelling places with strong building codes not only minimizes damage from natural disasters, according to the IBHS, but it also reduces rebuilding and repair costs and allows residents to more quickly return to their homes and lives. IBHS research also indicates that adopting statewide building codes typically results in an increase in residential construction costs of about 3 percent to 4 percent.
Download a PDF of "Five Years Later—Are We Better Prepared?".