Averting Disaster: Building Regulations in the Wake of Hurricane Irma

After Hurricane Irma’s dissipation on September 15, 2017, the residents of Florida can now begin to assess the damage caused by the strongest hurricane making landfall since Katrina in 2005. According to early estimates, Irma has caused over 62 billion dollars in damage. However, amongst the destruction there is a silver lining; the damage caused was significantly limited by building regulations that went into effect in 2002. Homes and buildings that would have otherwise been destroyed by Hurricane Irma were able to survive, and suffered only minor damage.

Benefits of compliance

The debate over the extent of over-regulation has raged in the United States for some time. However, consensus exists on the importance of basic building regulations, and for good reason: ocean-facing states like Florida recognize the link between passing up-to-date building codes and the protection of their citizens. In 2002, after Hurricane Andrew, Florida enacted new building regulations. The Florida State Board of Administration (FSBA) examined damage sustained during Andrew and enacted new regulations that required, among other things, cross-laminated timber in exterior walls, stronger roofing fasteners, and impact resistant windows. The regulations extend beyond calling for increased structural integrity. During hurricanes, flying debris is a deadly prospect, and the updated codes were designed to prevent large pieces of buildings from becoming deadly hazards in hurricane winds, by keeping them firmly affixed to the building.

The efficacy of these new regulations is clear in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. By comparing hurricane damage over time, the FSBA came to a clear conclusion: building code regulations work, and damage has been reduced or prevented as a direct consequence of the new codes. Indeed, analysts at Austin College looked at data from 2001 to 2010 and determined that building codes have reduced destructive weather damage by 72%.

Adherence to code has implications that reach beyond helping people protect their homes. For example, compliance has a beneficial effect on insurance rates. As damages stay low, interest rates are likely to reflect that. Furthermore, these cost savings extend to the local, state and federal government. As more and more buildings comply with modern building regulations, the net cost of recovery and clean up are likely to decrease.

Challenges of compliance

Compliance with building regulations is not without its downsides. For instance, adherence can significantly increase cost of construction and maintenance. Unsurprisingly, Florida has stricter building codes than most other states. In some parts of Florida, homes in compliance with current codes can cost 45% more. Elsewhere in the nation, compliance can increase the cost by 25%. This includes the initial cost of bringing a building up to code, and the fines levied for failing to do so. For homeowners in hurricane-prone areas, the choice is a difficult one. Residents often must choose between buying a house up to code and risking weather-related ruin, or spending money they do not have to bring their home up to code. The choice, especially in poorer parts of the nation, is sometimes made for the homeowner by financial limitations. Through income tax deductions and other grants, federal and state governments have attempted to make compliance much more feasible for Americans, but these efforts may not be enough. State governments have taken other questionable steps to help homeowners defray the cost of regulatory compliance. In State Farm Fire and Cas. Co. v. Metropolitan Dade County, Dade County sued State Farm, arguing that code upgrades were covered losses. The Court determined that the language in the insurance contracts unambiguously stated that compliance with state building codes are not covered losses. The negative implications of regulatory compliance, as with the benefits, reach far beyond what this cursory examination covers.

Striking a fair balance

Compliance with state building codes is undoubtedly beneficial to both the homeowner and society in general. However, despite the general consensus that has been reached on the topic of building codes, the costs of compliance to the average homeowner should not be underestimated or brushed aside. Regulations should remain stringent, but fines for noncompliance should be reduced proportional to the financial ability of the homeowner. Furthermore, government should provide greater financing for homeowners who need it. Striking this balance may mean the difference between a region able to recover in a matter of years, and one that takes decades to recover.