By Joseph Myers

The high economic costs and tragic loss of lives associated with natural disasters this year should motivate our elected officials in Washington to advance comprehensive solutions that better protect the nation. The numbers are staggering. In 2011, there have already been 10 major disaster events that combined have cost the nation more than $40 billion.

There is a silver lining behind the storm clouds. California, which has achieved the gold standard in building codes, provides a useful model that lawmakers can duplicate to protect property, save lives and significantly reduce taxpayer exposure to future disasters.
California’s strong building codes adhere to the standards issued by the International Code Council (ICC). These model building codes are a proven way to mitigate the damage of hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires and earthquakes.In a landmark study conducted in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, researchers at Louisiana State University’s (LSU) Hurricane Center estimated that strong building codes would have reduced wind damage from the storm by 80 percent, saving $8 billion. They also found that model building codes would have reduced Katrina-related economic losses in Mississippi by $3.1 billion and saved nearly 40,000 buildings from major damage.A similar study conducted by the Insurance Institute for Home and Business Safety found that Florida’s strong building codes, which also adhere to ICC standards,  reduced the severity of property losses from Hurricane Charley by 42 percent and the frequency of losses by 60 percent. 

In California, model building codes were put to the test during the Cedar Fire in 2003. This fire, the largest in California history, destroyed 14 percent of the 15,000 homes in the burn area in San Diego County. Yet, only four percent of homes in the county that were built to model building codes were lost.

The evidence is conclusive. When you construct buildings to model codes, it is simply harder for wind, water and fire to destroy them. The challenge facing the nation is that far too few states have followed California’s lead in requiring that new homes and commercial structures are built to ICC standards. There is currently legislation pending in Congress that addresses this problem. The aptly-named, Safe Building Code Incentive Act would provide states with a powerful financial incentive to adopt model building codes and put in place the requisite inspection and enforcement mechanisms. Qualifying states, which currently include California and 15 others, would be eligible for an additional four-percent in post-disaster mitigation grants. With anti-mandate sentiments running strong in Washington and the states, it would be nearly impossible to pass federal legislation that would require the imposition of model building codes nationally. That’s why the carrot approach provided by The Safe Building Code Incentive Act’s has real merit. Moreover, the legislation does not require an additional appropriation from Congress so it avoids the controversy that would come with any new spending initiative in this political environment. Under the proposed law, existing funds inside the Disaster Relief Fund would simply be reallocated on a basis that rewards those states that adopt strong building codes.

While reaching bipartisan consensus has proven to be difficult in this Congress, this is one issue where Republicans and Democrats, at both the federal and state level, can come together to serve the national interest. Governor Jerry Brown, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer should marshal the significant resources of the California Congressional Delegation behind the Safe Building Code Incentive Act.

This legislation would reward California’s leadership on disaster mitigation and ignite a movement in state capitals across the nation to pass model building codes that are truly our best line of defense against future disasters. With climate experts predicting more extreme weather patterns in the months and years ahead, it is incumbent on our political leaders to do more than simply pass supplemental appropriations and hope for the best. We need to put a place a long-term strategy that improves the nation’s preparedness and ability to respond to natural disasters, one that is rooted in the widespread adoption of model building codes.

California has long been a precedent setting state. What happens in the Golden State often spreads across the nation. Hopefully, this dynamic will help make strong building codes the norm in America.

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