By Joseph Myers

Tornado season has started earlier than usual and is wrecking havoc in communities across the United States. In Dexter, more than 100 homes were severely damaged and 13 destroyed outright from the twister that recently touched down in Michigan.

The severity of this year’s tornadoes could mean that we are in for an even more devastating tornado season than last year when 550 people lost their lives and damages topped out at $28.7 billion.

Mother Nature is clearly sending us a message and we need our lawmakers in Congress to respond with a national strategy that will make our communities safer from natural disasters.

One of the smartest and most effective steps Congress could take would be to provide states with incentives to adopt statewide, model building codes. Strong building codes are widely embraced in the emergency management community as being our best first line of defense against tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, flooding and other weather-induced disasters.

When homes and commercial buildings are constructed to the model codes issued by the International Code Council, it is simply harder for the wind and water to knock them down. According to an Institute for Building Sciences study commissioned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for every dollar invested in pre-storm mitigation such as promoting the statewide adoption of strong building codes, the nation reaps four dollars in benefits.

The problem is too few states have put model building codes in place or lack statewide enforcement mechanisms to give their codes real teeth. There is bipartisan legislation pending in the U.S. House of Representatives that would provide states with a powerful financial incentive to require strong building codes. Congresswoman Candice Miller of Macomb County is one of the leading advocates for the bill.

The aptly-named Safe Building Code Incentive Act that Miller has co-sponsored would provide qualifying states with an additional 4% percent in post-disaster grants in exchange for adopting model building codes that would better protect property, save lives and ultimately reduce taxpayer exposure to natural disasters. Sixteen states would immediately qualify for additional disaster relief aid upon enactment of the legislation. Michigan is one of them.

As a former head of the Division of Emergency Management in the state of Florida and a two-time past president of the National Emergency Managers Association, I have been on the frontlines of the national debate over how to best empower the nation to respond to major disasters. In the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew that devastated much of southern Florida in 1992, our state made a commitment to reach the gold standard for utilizing strong building codes as a disaster mitigation strategy. The model building codes we put into law have played a vital role in containing the damage of subsequent storms in Florida. According to research conducted by the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, Florida’s strong building codes reduced property damage resulting from Hurricane Charley in 2004 by more than 40%.

Those of us who work in emergency management know that strong building codes work. Now it’s time for our elected leaders in Congress to follow Congresswoman Miller’s lead and pass the Safe Building Code Incentive Act. With climate experts predicting more extreme weather patterns in the months and years ahead, it is not enough for Congress to sit back and hope for the best. We need action before the next round of major storms pounds the nation.

The Safe Building Code Incentive Act is a win-win proposition for homeowners and taxpayers in Michigan and across the nation. It should be placed on a fast track in Congress, and once it is adopted lawmakers in state legislatures should seize the moment to put sound building practices to work for their constituents.

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Joseph Myers is CEO of Disasters, Strategies, and Ideas Group, a two-time past president of the National Emergency Managers Association and a former director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management.