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Hurricanes are coming – Is your home ready?

The answer, if your house was built somewhere other than a city like Houston that actually enforces hurricane building codes, is probably not.

Since Hurricane Rita, the state’s lack of attention toward its building codes, often characterized as a muddy patchwork of inconsistent regulations, has left hurricane experts stunned.

Houston meteorologist Bill Read, new chief of the National Hurricane Center, called out local and state policymakers earlier this year for doing nothing. Former hurricane center director Max Mayfield expressed similar concern, saying better building is the country’s only safeguard against rapid coastal development.

And disaster safety officials are equally incredulous that Texas, with nearly three years passed since Rita, and a new hurricane season beginning today, has done so little.

“Texas is an aberration,” said Leslie Chapman-Henderson, chief executive of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, a nonprofit organization. “It’s eerily quiet in the state. Why are they not having a conversation about codes?”

You already know the answer to that question, don’t you? This is Texas, after all.

The state has quasi-mandatory codes for coastal residents, unevenly enforced codes in cities, and builder-enforced codes elsewhere. National advocates for stronger building codes say that’s probably not the most forward-looking approach for a hurricane-prone state.

Texas cities, such as Houston and Galveston, have statutory authority to set and enforce building codes, and for the last decade new coastal developments have been subject to reasonably strong codes. But counties have little authority to regulate building codes, leaving unincorporated areas something of a mystery, varying from finely constructed homes to well, who really knows?

[…]

Building codes are only as good as their enforcement, experts agree, but in a state like Texas, where there’s no uniform code policy, enforcement is all over the map. A private analysis of the state’s municipal codes bears this out.

ISO, an information risk company that primarily serves insurers, assesses the building codes and enforcement standards in local communities. ISO then grades a community on a scale from 1, exemplary, to 10. A good rating generally lowers a region’s insurance rates, a bad rating the contrary.

Statewide, Texas has an average of about 5.5 on the ISO scale, which is worse than the national average, about 4.5, and considerably worse than the country’s gold standard for codes, Florida, about 3.5.

For cities within 30 miles of the Texas coast, Houston, Baytown, Pearland and Harlingen do the best, each earning a rating of 4 for residential development. Galveston earned a 5.

[…]

Building codes do matter. In 1992, the strongest hurricane to ever strike the U.S. mainland, Andrew, brought 165 mph winds to the Miami area.

While pricier homes nearby were flattened, 27 homes built to a hurricane resistant code by Habitat for Humanity sustained no structural damage. A Miami Herald headline read, “Tally: Habitat 27, Andrew 0.”

Andrew awakened Florida to the importance of building codes, and the state has adopted the most rigorous building protections in the country, requiring everything from storm shutters to metal roofs in the most vulnerable areas.

This has raised building costs between 0.5 percent to 5 percent, building code advocates say. But once the codes go in, and every developer has to play at the same level, market forces quickly drive down costs.

“Better building will not only help save lives, it will ultimately help save tremendously on insurance payments,” said Mayfield, who is now a TV meteorologist in the Miami area.

A consistent code may also improve traffic flow during evacuations because residents outside storm surge zones would have confidence that their home could withstand winds associated with major hurricanes and not feel the need to flee, Mayfield said.

Chapman-Henderson, the safe homes advocate, said the first step toward creating a statewide code would be to hire engineers from the state’s universities to assess the existing quality of homes and building code enforcement. That would provide information to begin developing a uniform code.

“This is one of the avoidable disasters,” she said. “Not doing anything is the classic definition of insanity.”

Yet the idea of a statewide building code appears to have little traction in Texas. Smithee, who is not unsympathetic to overhauling the codes, says it would probably be difficult.

“There’s always been opposition to change from builders groups,” he said.

Quelle surprise. But then, the public good has never been a priority for these guys. Shifting their financial risk to the consumer, that’s what they’re all about. Sadly, they have too many friends in the Lege for there to be any hope for change, but at least now we’re talking about it. That’s a start.

(By the way, hurricane season started a day early this year. Have you stocked up on bottled water and batteries yet?)

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One Comment

  1. Charles Hixon says:

    …has left “hurricane experts” stunned.

    I have not seen a stunned “hurricane expert”. Maybe a dismayed or frustrated “hurricane expert”, but not a stunned “hurricane expert”. If “hurricane experts” are stunned over this, these “hurricane experts” would not make it through a hurricane. Over the years, the Chronic has found more stunned folks out there that I ever thought imaginable.