When Disaster Strikes, Building Codes May Make Things Worse

April 4, 2018

TipSheet: When Disaster Strikes, Building Codes May Make Things Worse

Back in 1992, Hurricane Andrew in 1992 flattened whole neighborhoods, destroying or damaging tens of thousands of homes. The 175 mph winds ripped the roofs clean off many of those homes.

Yet many of the lost or damaged homes might have fared better if the roofs had been better fastened to the house, or the house better fastened to the foundation.

So after Andrew, Florida and many of its counties got religion and tightened up their building codes. And it helped.

But after 25 years, they are backsliding, even as the hurricanes are getting bigger. And Florida is not the only state.


Many disasters are made worse by the

failure of building codes and zoning

to mandate obvious preventive measures.


Many disasters are made worse by the failure of building codes and zoning to mandate obvious preventive measures. Now, a new insurance industry report offers journalists an opportunity to find disaster-proofing stories in their own home turf.

The Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety has just published a new edition of “Rating the States,” focusing on 18 hurricane-prone coastal states. It finds a “lack of progress” in hardening the homefront.

A further problem: Localities are often the ones that adopt the building codes, and states don’t like to coerce localities. Both are vulnerable to heavy lobbying by the homebuilding and real estate industries.

Journalist Christopher Flavelle did an admirable take on the issue for Bloomberg in March. He concluded that the “progress” was actually backward in many states. And, he pointed out, this is all happening as climate change seems to be making hurricanes and other storms worse.

Flood zones shifting, but homes may not shift with them

Although there are many causes for floods, they often come with hurricanes. Such floods often exceed what engineers expect from history alone. Meanwhile, flood zones are changing. Climate change often has a lot to do with all this.

But when it comes to rebuilding after a flood, not everyone rebuilding has the money to elevate their house to the height that rules require — if they require elevation at all. At the same time, many are not willing to abandon their homes, even when there is money for buyouts — which there often isn’t.

A recent notable example of the challenges was the flooding around Houston that came with the unimaginable rains of Hurricane Harvey. In that case, the problem was zoning (may require subscription) — something that they don’t actually believe in that much in many parts of Texas. Not building in a flood zone can be prudent. If you know where (may require subscription) the flood zone is.

These two questions, should you build it there, and should you build it better, are likely to have different answers depending on where you are and what the disaster is.

Local government, insurance industry central to reporting the story

Hurricane-driven flooding is an especially good story if you cover the Gulf or Atlantic coasts. But if you zoom out, you can see how these questions apply to all kinds of disasters — including tornadoes, earthquakes, wildfires, landslides and even ice storms.

Building codes, and zoning as well, can prevent much of the worst destruction from these weather-related plagues.

Damaged house with a partially destroyed roof in Florida following Hurricane Andrew. Building codes were tightened afterwards, but the stricter rules have not always stuck. Photo: Steven Martin, Flickr Creative Commons

To report this story, you can find help from many sources: local homeowners, real estate sellers, local builders, local zoning and planning boards, city and county councils, local building permit offices, emergency managers and first responders.

Also look at the state level: What state agencies and legislative committees have jurisdiction over building and zoning codes? What measures have they considered or passed to strengthen or weaken local codes? And who is lobbying them?

Another important voice in this conversation is the insurance industry. There is such a thing as flood insurance, but it often does not work, and Congress as of this writing has not really fixed it.

One starting point is the Insurance Information Institute. Also check out the American Insurance Association, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy or the Insurance Journal. Also see the nonprofit consumer advocate group, the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (aka FLASH).

Check in as well with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which manages the federal response to (and preparation for) all kinds of disasters — often successfully. FEMA also oversees the National Flood Insurance Program. Its national press office is here, but you may need to go through their system of regional press operations.

By the way, FEMA recently removed any mention of climate change from its strategic plan. If you get them on the phone, you might ask them why.

Earthquakes — not ready for the big one?

Earthquakes are another important kind of disaster, one where buildings kill people. Check in with the U.S. Geological Survey to find the most quake-prone areas in the United States (spoiler: worst are the Pacific Coast and Alaska). It also offers near-real-time quake alerts, handy for news junkies.

USGS is also good for info and maps,  plus details on landslide hazards, which can be mitigated with good siting and zoning.

The thing is that much of the populated Pacific Coast isn’t really ready for The Big One. There was a time when California was a leader in building codes that might mitigate quake damage. But some say they are no longer good enough, and need to be strengthened.

The situation could be worse in Washington state, where a big quake could create a 60-foot tsunami, for which almost nobody is prepared. This is not about building codes, but about not being in the inundation zone and having a warning system.

Wildfire can sweep through developed areas

The wildfire disasters in California in 2017 were more destructive than anybody had ever imagined, and more destructive than we can describe here. And there were other bad wildfires elsewhere. SEJ publications have talked about how to cover wildfires.

But an important lesson was that the whole phenomenon of wildfire is changing with development and climate change in the United States. In some cases, the problem is location (i.e., zoning). In many other cases, good building practices may help. That rustic, natural wood house might not make it, especially with a roof that can burn.

Building codes often don’t apply in remote areas, or areas on the wildland-urban interface. But when they do, communities may want to mandate fire-resistant construction.

Sure, some journalists (and their audiences) might see building codes and zoning as boring. The next disaster in your area could change that. Plan ahead.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 14. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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