By Joseph Myers

With the federal government carrying a national debt in excess of $14 trillion, it is incumbent on policymakers in Washington to rein in the deficit and put the nation's financial house in order.

At the same time, important priorities such as helping families and communities rebuild from natural disasters shouldn't be shortchanged or held hostage to partisan politics. The nation needs a strategy to contain the cost of natural disasters, one that is rooted in strong building codes.

Encouraging the widespread adoption of strong building codes would help fortify our defenses against nature's forces and save taxpayer dollars. Virginia is one of the states that have achieved the gold standard in building codes. The problem is too few states have followed the commonwealth's lead, or lack the enforcement mechanisms to give their codes real teeth.

There is legislation pending in Congress that would provide a powerful incentive for states to institute strong building codes and the requisite inspection standards. The aptly named Safe Building Code Incentive Act would award states that voluntarily adopt strong building codes an additional 4 percent of funding for post-disaster grants. The bill wouldn't require an additional appropriation because it simply reallocates funding inside the Disaster Relief Fund. But it would ignite an important debate in state capitols across the nation about the important role building codes can play in lessening the impact of natural disasters. As one of 16 states with strong building codes on the books, Virginia would immediately qualify for additional assistance under the proposed law.

As the chairman of the Republican Governors Association and the majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, respectively, Gov. Bob McDonnell and Rep. Eric Cantor could greatly benefit Virginians and the nation by helping to bring their Republican colleagues to the conclusion that implementing strong building codes is a smart policy that fiscal conservatives should eagerly embrace.

The evidence is overwhelming. Strong building codes save lives, protect property and reduce taxpayer exposure to natural disasters. In a landmark study conducted in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana State University's (LSU) Hurricane Center estimated that strong building codes would have reduced the wind damage from Katrina by 80 percent, saving $8 billion. LSU also found that strong building codes would have reduced economic losses in Mississippi from a Katrina-level storm by $3.1 billion and spared nearly 40,000 buildings from being damaged.

Yet another study commissioned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency found that for every $1 invested in mitigation activities like encouraging strong building codes, taxpayers save $4 in relief costs.

This year's weather has been brutal and costly to the nation. There have already been 10 major disasters that have cost more than $40 billion. With climate experts predicting more severe weather in the months and years ahead, we cannot afford to miss this opportunity to do something lasting for the American people. It is not enough to pass supplemental appropriation bills and hope for the best. That's a recipe for more costly disasters that will further burden taxpayers.

The good news is we're not defenseless in the eye of the storm. When you build homes and office buildings to model codes, it simply harder for the wind and water to knock them down. Now it's up to Congress and state policymakers to lead and put the benefits of strong building codes to work for the nation. The rationale for the Safe Building Code Incentive Act is widely accepted by disaster mitigation experts. This vital legislation should be adopted before the next big storm pounds the nation.

Joseph Myers is a two-time president of the National Emergency Managers Association

Read more: http://www2.timesdispatch.com/news/oped/2011/oct/20/tdopin02-myers-strong-building-codes-can-reduce-ta-ar-1395128/