By Rep. Lou Barletta

In the late summer of 2011, Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee wreaked havoc on swaths across the eastern United States, including in my home state of Pennsylvania. Lives were lost, families were broken, and businesses and homes were destroyed or damaged. To say the very least, natural disasters of these kind are extremely disruptive to people and the economy, and impose massive cleanup and rebuilding costs on taxpayers.

Over the last 30 years, it is estimated that similar events have racked up more than $1 trillion in damages and costs. Because of the strength and fury of such storms, there will always be chaos to address in their aftermaths, but what if there were actions we could take now that would reduce these consequences in the future? Fortunately, there are such steps, and we know them by the term “mitigation.”

There are a variety of ways to mitigate future damage, such as elevating homes out of floodways or removing debris from waterways to make drainage easier. Building owners might install storm shutters, roof storm clips, or tie-downs to help structures withstand high winds and prevent devastating losses and costs. We know mitigation efforts like building codes, flood-proofing and earthquake design standards can relieve or, in some cases, eliminate the human and financial impact of disasters on the nation.

As the chairman of the Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I am working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to explore ways Congress can help encourage mitigation practices that will save lives and taxpayer money from disasters.

Here in Congress, several members have offered approaches to facilitate mitigation and encourage the building of stronger and more disaster-resistant communities. These proposals include incentives for state and local governments to improve their building codes, which can reduce building damage and protect people from harm during a catastrophe. Other bills provide tax incentives to individual homebuilders or homeowners if they choose strong building materials and construction methods. 

Another proposal would allow individuals to set aside up to $5,000 annually in tax-free accounts for disaster mitigation expenses.

While all of these measures need to be evaluated closely and evaluated for their impacts on taxpayers, they do share a common characteristic: they are incentives and not mandates.

Last fall, I visited the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety’s state-of-the-art research center in South Carolina and witnessed a wildfire demonstration. The exercise showed how modern building science and best practices could help structures withstand the impact of wildfires. Later in the day, I heard more about the difference resilient homes, communities and individuals could make in helping lessen the impact of disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding and even earthquakes.

I encourage my colleagues to also take a close look at this issue as we enter the month of May, which is National Building Safety Month. This annual event helps educate policymakers about the advancements in building science and the difference implementing these measures can make to our communities. As part of this year’s activities, I will be participating in the 2nd Annual National Thought Leaders Forum on Model-Building Codes, sponsored by the BuildStrong Coalition and the Congressional Fire Services Institute. This event will bring together the nation’s foremost experts on this issue. I encourage my colleagues and members of the media who are interested in disaster mitigation to join me in attending this important event, to be held from 8:30 a.m. to noon on May 1 at the Capitol Visitor Center.

As a member of Congress who has met with the victims of natural disasters, I am always looking for ways to prevent such misery. We should take every opportunity to explore ways to mitigate the loss of life and costs of natural disasters, and we should examine the role that modern building science can play in achieving these important goals. And, ideally, our approach should be based on incentives — and not mandates from Washington.

Barletta has represented Pennsylvania’s 11th Congressional District since 2011. He sits on the Transportation and Infrastructure; Homeland Security; and Education and the Workforce committees.

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