On the first day of the Atlantic hurricane season, federal officials announced a new initiative to modernize building codes across the country so that communities can be more resilient extreme weather events.
Deanne Criswell, the administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Ali Zaidi, the deputy national climate advisor to President Joe Biden, discussed the initiative Wednesday during a briefing at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, where Hurricane Andrew caused $26 billion in damage in 1992, and recovering from a similar hit could cost hundreds of billions today.
Nearly two out of every three communities in the United States have outdated building codes and, as a result, are vulnerable to climate impacts and higher energy costs, officials said. The initiative is designed to help state, local, Tribal and territorial governments adopt current building codes and standards, enabling communities to be more resilient to hurricanes, flooding, wildfires and other extreme weather events that are intensifying due to climate change.
Updated building codes provide a range of smart design and construction methods “that save lives, reduce property damage and lower utility bills,” according to the National Initiative to Advance Building Codes. It applies to new construction and to homes and buildings that are rebuilt due to damage.
“The adoption of hazard-resistant building codes saves communities $11 per every $1 invested,” Criswell said, citing a finding by the National Institute of Building Sciences.
The initiative, approved by the National Climate Task Force earlier this year, comes amid signs that coastal communities should brace themselves for more intense storms. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted 14 to 21 named storms in the Atlantic this season, with six to 10 becoming hurricanes and three to six turbo-charging into major hurricanes with winds greater than 110 mph (177 kph).
It’s already begun with Agatha, a storm that battered Mexico in the last few days and may re-form in the Gulf of Mexico and possibly threaten parts of Florida by this weekend, the hurricane center said.
“This initiative is proof that acting on climate change delivers countless benefits to all Americans, especially in our most vulnerable communities,” said Gina McCarthy, the president’s national climate advisor.
The program is designed to help buildings withstand damage caused by all natural disasters, including wildfires, tornadoes and floods.
The codes ensure, for example, that roofs can withstand hurricane-force winds, that construction materials are resistant to flood damage and that insulation helps reduce heating and cooling costs, officials said.
Education will be a key element. A FEMA analysis found that only 35 percent of cities, counties and towns across the country have updated hazard-resistant building codes. Cost is a factor: Construction and renovation designed for disaster-resiliency can be more expensive. But the estimated savings for typical households in utility bills alone could be about $162 per year, officials projected.
And on a larger scale, communities that have adopted modern building codes are already saving an estimated $1.6 billion a year in avoided damage from major disasters, officials said. That equates to a cumulative $132 billion through 2040 that won’t have to be spent on disaster recovery.
Federal agencies will use $225 million in infrastructure funding already approved for the U.S. Department of Energy to support energy code adoption, enforcement, training and technical assistance at the state and local level. The federal plan will also review federal funding of some construction projects to ensure they follow modern building standards.
The agencies said they plan to lead by example, implementing the new codes in federal buildings.
The program was announced at Florida International’s famed Wall of Wind facility, which tests building materials at Category 5 hurricane winds. FIU noted that the facility has already led to improved building codes. Researchers found, for example, that using ring-shank roofing nails made shingles much more resistant to hurricane winds. The nails are now standard in Florida.
Florida has historically led the way in wind-resistance building codes, but critics say more changes are needed, including requiring advanced roof underlayments to prevent leaks. The Florida Legislature last week approved expedited changes to the state code, which will no longer require full roof replacement if only a small portion of the roof area is damaged.
Photo: Officials announce the building code initiative at FIU’s Wall of Wind facility. (FIU)