States Are Relaxing Building Codes In The Face Of Stronger Storms

Numerous states are relaxing building codes even as weather events become more extreme.

Florida made headlines last year as home builders and safety advocates vied for the affection of state lawmakers -- one group longing for relaxed building regulations and the other hoping politicians would land on the side of protecting their residents.

In the end, the home builders won, and legislation was signed by Gov. Rick Scott that ends the state's practice of adopting the International Code Council's standards every three years.

It turns out that Florida is not alone in scaling back on building regulations, and safety advocates, engineers, and insurers are concerned that reducing standards in the face of stronger storms and rising seas will lead to unnecessary loss of life and property.

A report being released on Monday shows Florida isn’t alone in easing up on building regulations even as the effects of global warming escalate. The Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety examined building policies in 18 Atlantic and Gulf Coast states and found that despite the increasing severity of natural disasters, many of those states have relaxed their approach to codes -- or have yet to impose any whatsoever.

"There’s no longer the automatic assumption that codes are good," Julie Rochman, the head of the institute, said in an interview. "We just have an incredible capacity for amnesia and denial in this country."

As the Trump administration struggles to deal with sky high disaster costs, state and local officials are dismantling codes meant to mitigate those costs.

The shift toward less rigorous codes is driven by several factors, experts say: Rising anti-regulatory sentiment among state officials, and the desire to avoid anything that might hurt home sales and the tax revenue that goes with them.

In 2016, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has floated the possibility of withholding federal disaster aid if states opt to relax building codes, but so far the proposal has not come to fruition.

[Craig] Fugate, the former FEMA head who led the coalition against Florida’s codes overhaul last year, predicted that even as the effects of climate change worsen, states will continue to favor lowering the cost of construction -- as long as the federal government keeps paying to rebuild those homes.

"The reason states and local governments can get away with crappy homes is because somebody’s always bailing them out," Fugate said. If FEMA really wants to change states’ behavior, he added, it should change the name of the agency’s spending programs.