By Joseph Myers
The Miami Herald

This year’s weather has been brutal and costly to the nation. In the spring, the country was hit by deadly tornadoes and rampant flooding along the Mississippi River. Drought and wildfires have ravaged Texas and much of the Southwest. The nation’s capital was shaken by a rare earthquake in August before the summer was punctuated by Hurricane Irene, the eighth most costly catastrophe in our nation’s history.

According to preliminary estimates, there have been 10 major natural disasters in 2011 that have already cost the nation $40 billion. In the immediate wake of a major storm like Hurricane Irene, there is always a flurry of discussion about what the nation can do to be better prepared the next time a big one hits.

Supplemental relief bills are passed. Then other events take center stage and we lose momentum to do something lasting for the American people.

With weather experts predicting more disturbing climate patterns in the months and years ahead, we cannot afford to repeat our past mistakes. We need a national strategy, one that is rooted in strong building codes that can help mitigate the impact of major storms.

Three Florida members of Congress, U.S. Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, Steve Southerland and Allen West, have sponsored vital legislation to encourage the widespread adoption of model building codes. Their bill, the aptly-named Safe Building Code Incentive Act of 2011, would provide strong financial incentives for states to adopt and enforce strong codes. Qualifying states would be eligible for an additional four percent in post-disaster relief grants. Florida is one of 16 states with strong building codes that would immediately qualify for additional relief should the legislation become law.

As a two-time president of the National Emergency Managers Association and an emergency manager in Florida for eight years, I was heartened by the actions of government officials along the eastern seaboard as Irene picked up speed. As the public official who led the development of Florida’s preparedness plan in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, I know the stresses they felt.

Hurricane Andrew was the storm that launched the drive in Florida to develop the best practices for state preparedness. During Hurricane Irene, many of these same procedures were followed effectively and people’s safety was undoubtedly enhanced as a result.

Now that the wind has stopped blowing, Congress will most likely be asked to pass a supplemental appropriations bill to provide disaster relief to the states hit hardest by Irene. It is the duty of lawmakers to provide the financial resources that communities need to rebuild. It is also important for Congress to seize this opportunity to advance the cause of strong building codes.

I’m a storm watcher by profession and an avid SEC football fan by hobby. My life experiences have led me to believe that our best defense against natural disasters is a strong offense. The scientific evidence is overwhelming. Strong building codes save lives, protect property, and ultimately reduce taxpayer exposure to natural disasters. In the storm I know best, a study conducted for the Institute for Business and Home Safety found that losses from Hurricane Andrew would have been reduced by 50 percent for residential property and 40 percent for commercial property had Florida’s existing building codes been in place and enforced in 1992.

That would have reduced the costs of insured damage by nearly $10 billion.

Another study conducted by Louisiana State University’s Hurricane Center in the aftermath of Katrina came to similar conclusions. According to LSU’s research, strong building codes would have reduced Katrina’s wind damage by 80 percent, saving $8 billion. In Mississippi, 30,000 buildings would have been spared damage and economic losses would have been reduced by $3.1 billion.

The facts are clear. When you build homes and office buildings to sound standards, it is simply harder for the wind and water to knock them down. We have learned this lesson in Florida. The problem is too few states have embraced model building codes as a disaster mitigation strategy or lack the inspection and enforcement mechanisms to give their codes teeth.

While attempting to impose national building code standards would likely be derailed by anti-mandate sentiments in state legislatures, the carrot approach in the Safe Building Code Incentive Act has real merit. Its adoption would jump start a much needed national conversation on the effectiveness of strong building codes as a disaster mitigation strategy.

Joseph Myers was the state of Florida’s emergency manager from 1993-2001.

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