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As Storms Worsen, Many Coastal States Aren't Prepared

Lax building codes and poor enforcement are a big problem in some places.

harvey houses flooded
In less than a week, Hurricane Harvey dropped up to 50 inches of rain on Houston.
June is the start of the Atlantic hurricane season. And according to researchers at Colorado State University, it’s going to be a busy one. They have predicted there will be 14 tropical storms; seven of which are expected to become hurricanes. But not every community is prepared for another active season -- at least not when it comes to the resilience of their buildings.

Eight out of the 18 hurricane-prone coastal states along the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Coast are highly vulnerable, according to a new report from the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS). The report, Rating the States: 2018, is the institute’s third in six years. It evaluates the states on 47 factors that include whether residential building codes are mandated statewide, whether states and localities enforce those codes, and whether licensing and education are required of building officials, contractors and subcontractors.

Overall, the institute found “a concerning lack of progress” in the adoption and enforcement of updated residential building code systems across most of the states examined. “There’s not been much movement from [the first report] in 2012 to today,” says Julie Rochman, who stepped down as CEO and president of IBHS in April. “There’s some inertia.” 

No state achieved a perfect rating based on the 100-point scale. But Florida, Virginia, South Carolina and New Jersey all received 90 or more points. Meanwhile New York, Maine, New Hampshire, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Delaware received less than 70 points. None of these eight states mandate statewide building codes.

The institute, which is a nonprofit organization supported by property insurers and reinsurers, conducts scientific research to identify and promote best building practices. “The importance of strong, well-enforced codes was clearly demonstrated in 2017,” the report says, when, over a two-month period, three devastating hurricanes each caused billions in damages.

This was particularly apparent in Florida, which has a statewide mandated building code that’s regularly updated. “Florida really proved itself with Hurricane Irma,” says Rochman. “You had a devastating storm that came up the entire peninsula, subjecting homes to high winds and flooding. The state performed really well.”

An IBHS study after Hurricane Charley in 2004 shows just how well Florida’s homes have stood up over time. The study found a 60 percent reduction in  residential property damage claims filed and a 42 percent reduction in the severity of damages claimed.

The states rated best and worst don’t fall along partisan political lines -- or along the lines of climate change activists vs. skeptics. Florida, for instance, is rated the highest with 95 points. But the state’s Republican governor has repeatedly demurred when asked about climate change, saying, “I am not a scientist.” Meanwhile, Delaware, which has the lowest rating with 17 points, is one of several blue states to join a coalition of governments promising to tackle climate change despite President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement.


(Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety)

Extreme weather events are only expected to become more common. “We have extensive scientific evidence that extreme events are increasing around the world, and will continue to increase as climate change gets worse,” Noah Diffenbaugh, a professor of earth system science at Stanford University, recently told The New Republic

This, along with Florida’s tested building codes and last year’s storms, is why the report stresses the importance of mandatory statewide codes. While some local jurisdictions within the eight states rated below 70 may have strong code adoption and/or enforcement programs, it’s not enough, says Rochman.

Take Houston, which in April passed new building rules for flood resilience. Hurricane Harvey was one of the costliest hurricanes on record, inflicting nearly $200 billion in damage to not only Houston but also surrounding areas. Houston’s efforts are good. But, says Rochman, “Mother Nature doesn’t stop at a city boundary.”

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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