The tornadoes that swept through Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Alabama and Georgia marked an early and deadly start to the tornado season in 2012. According to the National Weather Service, there have been 152 tornadoes through March 1, which is 30 percent higher than the average over the past six years.

Mother Nature is sending us a message, and it's time for 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 accepted in the emergency management community as being our best first line of defense against tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, flooding and other weather-induced disasters.

The evidence is compelling. When homes and commercial buildings are constructed to the model codes issued by the International Code Council, it is simply harder for wind and water to knock them down. According to an Institute for Building Sciences study commissioned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for every $1 invested in pre-storm mitigation such as promoting the statewide adoption of strong building codes, the nation reaps $4 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.

The aptly named Safe Building Code Incentive Act 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. Currently, 16 states would immediately qualify for additional disaster relief aid upon enactment of the legislation. Indiana could qualify with slight legislative adjustments to its statewide building codes.

Enactment of the Safe Building Code Incentive Act would ignite a long-overdue debate in state capitals around the nation about the merits of requiring strong building codes. As a former head of the Department of Emergency Management in 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 equip 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 using strong building codes as a disaster mitigation strategy. The model building codes we put in place 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 the severity of property damage resulting from Hurricane Charley in 2004 by more than 40 percent.

Further evidence of the merits of strong building codes was found in a landmark study conducted by Louisiana State University's Hurricane Center. According to the researchers at LSU, strong building codes could have reduced wind damage from Hurricane Katrina by 80 percent, saving $8 billion. A similar study showed that building codes complying with the standards set forth in the Safe Building Code Incentive Act would reduce economic losses from a Katrina-level hurricane in Mississippi by $3.1 billion.

We know that strong building codes work. Now it's time for our elected leaders in Congress to come together and pass the Safe Building Code Incentive Act. This year's brutal start to tornado season could be a foreshadowing of what is to come this spring when tornado activity typically reaches its zenith, not to mention the potential dangers that lie ahead when hurricane season kicks off in June.

It's 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. It should be placed on a fast track in Congress, and once it is adopted lawmakers in state legislatures around the nation should seize the moment to put sound building practices to work for their constituents.

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