Building-Code Pushback that Makes Disasters Worse
On 2/28/23, I attended an excellent online FEMA seminar about building codes. It was a two-part presentation. Part One discussed how higher building codes can reduce damages from flooding. Part Two discussed building-code pushback. For example, despite all the flood damage in Texas, the State hasn’t updated its building codes since 2012 – even though the International Building Code and International Resilience Code have been updated several times since then.
That raises the question, “Why not?”
Part One began by talking about how, after every major natural disaster, FEMA sends in building-code experts to examine how structures performed and make recommendations for code changes to reduce future damage. It’s part of a process of continuous improvement that could/should make us all safer.
Part One ended with one of the most poignant stories I have ever heard. After a Cat 4 Hurricane struck Florida last year, a FEMA team was driving down a street littered with the debris of gutted homes and shattered lives. Mountains of waterlogged drywall, carpeting, furniture and cherished possessions lined both sides of the street waiting to be hauled away…just as it did in Houston after Harvey and Imelda.
But when the FEMA team got to the end of the street, they saw something that stunned them – a pristine home with nothing out front. It was actually the home on the street closest to the ocean. As they paused to marvel at the miracle, the homeowner drove up. They asked him the logical question, “Did you build above code requirements?”
“Not really,” said the homeowner. “I just built to what the code required.”
He went on to elaborate how the building inspector was a real stickler. “I thought he just had it in for me because I was a hippie. I really hated the guy.”
“What do you think of him now?” asked the FEMA employees. The homeowner extended his arms and made a bowing motion as if to praise and thank the man who had been such a thorn in his side.
FEMA estimates that adoption of hazard-resistant building codes saved $32 billion during the last 20 years and could save another $132 billion by 2040. Not to mention saving a lot of heartbreak and misery.
So why are people so resistant to adopting higher building codes?
Resistance on Many Levels
Part Two of the presentation examined sources of resistance to adopting higher building codes. They used Louisiana’s attempt to increase freeboard factors as an example of the the types of resistance FEMA frequently encounters from various groups.
In engineering, freeboard is is the distance codes require you to build above the current estimated 100-year flood level.
But still, people found reasons not to increase the freeboard. The second presenter examined seven sources of resistance:
- Perceived conflict between statewide minimum codes and local governments that may wish to adopt higher standards.
- Uncertainty about where freeboard regulations had and hadn’t been adopted already.
- Debate about whether the state or local authorities should establish standards.
- Questions about why FEMA isn’t making the regulations at a national level.
- Perceived lack of discounts in Risk Rating 2.0 national flood insurance premiums for structures elevated to meet higher freeboard requirements.
- Concern about whether fill to elevate homes would make flooding worse.
- Confusion over how building code officials and floodplain managers can collaborate.
All are valid concerns. But all can be overcome. Pretty easily, it turns out.
Answers readily exist for each of these issues. For example, with #6 (probably the most valid concern), communities have adopted standards to limit fill in areas where floodwater storage is a major concern.
For the other answers, see the entire presentation. The point I really want to make is about the pushback against proven practices that save lives and property.
Why Resist Changes that Avert Human Suffering?
As I watched the presentation, the image floating through my head was of the NTSB investigating a plane crash that killed hundreds of people. Imagine if the investigation found a defective engine part caused the catastrophe. Do you think manufacturers would resist upgrading the part?
It’s unthinkable. Who would board such an airplane? What aircraft manufacturer would even lobby against the change? The negative publicity would put them out of business.
But homebuilding and the development business are different. The industry has a million players, not a handful. A few bad actors can escape notice because:
- The codes are so complex that few understand them.
- Lobbyists frame discussion as “acceptable risk” vs. “unacceptable costs.”
- Responsibility is shared among government regulators at many levels, their political masters, and private industry.
- This creates an atmosphere of plausible deniability when disaster strikes. “We were just following regulations.” (Yeah, but who lobbied against them?)
Building Codes Like Seat Belts
Some readers may remember the battles to pass and enforce seat belt laws. Even though the federal government required manufacturers to install seat belts in all new cars starting in 1968, only 14% of Americans regularly used them at first. Adoption of state laws mandating usage was spotty. And when a Michigan state rep introduced a bill in the early 1980s that levied a fine for not buckling up, he received hate mail comparing him to Hitler. American’s love their freedom so much, they can even react negatively to efforts to protect them.
It’s the same way with building codes. Even when they provide a greater than 10-to-1 payback and qualify you for a billion dollars in flood-mitigation funding!
If you want to see how appallingly out of date Texas building codes can be, explore these two websites.
- InspectToProtect.org, sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security
- National Building Code Adoption Tracking Portal
So when the next disaster strikes, let the finger pointing begin.
No wait! Let’s just get a bailout from FEMA!
Posted by Bob Rehak on 3/1/2023
2010 Days since Hurricane Harvey
The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.