Report Suggests Gulf Coast Properties Not Much Safer Since Katrina

Louisiana has done a good job upgrading its building code requirements in the five years since Hurricane Katrina, but Alabama and Mississippi have not, according to a new report from the Institute for Business and Home Safety.

“While there have been positive steps taken in a number of coastal communities and counties in Alabama and Mississippi, only the State of Louisiana moved decisively to adopt and enforce a statewide building code just four months after Katrina,” the report says.

“Building codes along the Gulf Coast today are mostly disappointing, with only Louisiana getting high marks for taking proactive steps to adopt a statewide building code,” said Wanda Edwards, the Institute’s director of code development and the main author of the report, in a press release.

The Institute is an independent organization supported by property insurers and reinsurers, including Lloyd’s, Allstate Insurance Co., and Farmers Insurance Group, among others.

Louisiana adopted a statewide Uniform Construction Code within months of the hurricane five years ago, and mandated enforcement. While it has struggled with establishing and managing inspection departments, “the state must be commended for taking steps toward building homes that are more likely to survive the next hurricane,” the report says.

Alabama, on the other hand, has considered many relevant bills in its legislature, including some that would have created statewide building codes. Those bills have not passed, however. Instead, all that has been passed so far is a 2009 law that requires insurance companies to offer discounts to home owners who build or retrofit their houses to specified hurricane standards.

Mississippi put together a Mississippi Building Code Council in 2006, but the effort only halfway accomplished anything, the report says. The Council was supposed to provide leadership for local jurisdictions, to urge them to adopt rigorous building safety standards. However, only seven counties were influenced to adopt up-to-date, adequate building codes before the Council became inactive. The Council is no longer meeting.

The report says that most of the opposition to the adoption of statewide building codes in Mississippi and Alabama has been that the states are not rich places, and the codes would cost too much to implement, making housing too expensive.

But it says that South Carolina struggled with similar issues following Hurricane Hugo in 1989, and it has similar demographics, and yet it went ahead with strict codes and building has not stopped.

The report also says there is evidence that building to stringent safety codes really does save property and money. It notes that Florida has some of the best building codes for hurricane safety in the nation. In 2004, four hurricanes hit Florida in late summer. Following the first storm, Hurricane Charley, the Institute surveyed damage and insurance claims. The survey, which looked at 5,636 homes, of which 2,100 had property claims, found that houses built to strict codes were 60 percent less likely to have sustained damage compared to those built before the codes were adopted, and that if they had damage, is was an average 42 percent less severe.

Mark Harris, who is an Alabama builder and the president of the Huntsville/Madison County Builders Association, says he does not agree with the report. He notes the passage of the law mandating insurance premium discounts for the homes built or retrofitted to code and says Alabama localities are adopting the 2006 edition of the International Building Code and International Residential Code, which are drafted by the International Code Council.

Those codes are considered the state-of-the-art, according to the Institute report.

“The state is moving forward,” Harris says.

Alabama has seen rising home sales in recent months. In May, homes sales were up 6 percent over April, and up 23 percent from the same month last year.

But according to Jeff Helms, communications director for Montgomery, Ala.-based Alfa Insurance, insurers would like to see more progress. He said there are too few property insurers in Alabama, and those insurers are having a hard time keeping premiums affordable. He says safer building codes would help the industry mitigate risk and lower their costs.

“We’re very supportive of stronger building codes down there on the Gulf,” he said.