Braced for the Storm

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Satellite images of hurricanes bearing down on Atlantic and Gulf coasts illustrate their size, raw power and unpredictable movements. Yet states with stringent building codes can more effectively withstand a direct hit, with fewer homes suffering catastrophic damage.

The Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, based in Richburg south of Rock Hill, found that states are making “little progress” in terms of strengthening building codes protection, according to a new report. At the same time, a half-dozen or so states out of 18 in “hurricane prone” areas boast strong codes maintained for the past six years or more.

Florida ranks first in its storm codes — reporting a score of 95 out of 100 — followed by Virginia (94), South Carolina (92) and New Jersey (90). The lowest ranked in terms of building protections are Delaware, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas.

The institute released its latest edition of Rating the States in line with the so-called hurricane season June 1 to Nov. 30. The last report before this year was in 2015. The institute's first study was in 2012.

This year’s report “follows a disastrous year of storms in 2017, and is well-timed to inform discussion and action to improve building strength as communities repair or replace homes damaged (last year),” the think-tank and research center says.

“Mother Nature delivered a serious and costly beating to the U.S. and its territories during 2017, with 25 million people impacted by catastrophic hurricanes and many more by other severe weather events,” says Debra Ballen, the institute’s general counsel and senior vice president of public policy.

“Bad weather is not new and will not stop. But what can and must stop is the continued construction, and inevitable destruction, of weak, vulnerable homes built — and too often rebuilt — in questionable locations,” she says. “We must build stronger, to code standards proven to reduce risk, and stop allowing today’s weather events to become painful, expensive disasters for homeowners, communities, states and the entire nation.”

Most states showed mild or no changes in their scores this year from 2015.

The steepest jump was New York, which saw its score rise to 64 from 56. Massachusetts gained two points to 81 from 79. Florida rose one point from 94 and New Jersey was up one from 89. Also up one point were Connecticut, 89 from 88 three years ago; Louisiana, 83 from 82 and Alabama edging up to 27 from 26. States that held their scores were South Carolina, Rhode Island at 87; Maryland, 78; Mississippi, 28; and Delaware, 17. The most sizable declines were New Hampshire, off two points to 46 from 48 three years earlier; and Texas at 34, down from 36. States with a one point dip were Virginia, from 95 three years ago; North Carolina, 83 from 84; Georgia, 68 from 69; and Maine, 54 from 55.

The institute finds that areas with a history of top-notch protection have kept up standards but those without such traditions haven’t made much progress.

“States with strong, updated building codes saw stunning proof last year in Florida that updated, well-enforced building codes have led to the construction of homes and buildings that can stand up to fierce hurricane winds. It can’t be any clearer: these codes work,” Ballen says. “Unfortunately, many states have taken no action to improve their code systems, and a few have weaker systems in place now than they had in 2015.”

According to the report, South Carolina bases its residential building standards on the 2015 edition of the International Residential Code with state modifications. One change of note: “Wind speed maps were amended to align the wind contour lines with physical boundaries such as streets, highways, streams, rivers and lakes,” the institute says. The state also redrew boundaries for seismic design categories based on a state-sponsored study conducted by The Citadel, the institute says.

Coastal home design businesses such as Frederick + Frederick Architects in Beaufort agree that “adhering to building codes decreases damage from hurricanes.”

In a Sept. 25, 2017, post on its website, the firm points to clients on Fripp Island who invested in raising the first floor by about six feet, complying with the building code. “Flood waters were reported to have been up to four feet under their house, which would have certainly flooded their house prior to raising it,” the company says.

“Have you seen the photographs of Florida neighborhoods showing houses devastated by Irma (in September of last year)? The difference is the intact houses were built to the current building code,” the architectural group says.

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