Stronger Building Codes Can Help Communities Thrive Again After a Disaster

The power of natural disasters can be overwhelming. While you can't stop natural disasters from happening, strengthened building codes can increase not only your home's chance of survival, but your communities as well even in the face of the worst Mother Nature can dish out. When it comes to disaster resistance and preparedness, most mandatory building and construction criteria are based solely on the probability of risk; that is, a pre-determined acceptable level of losses due to severe weather or other destructive event regardless of the potential impact to the community.

However, the key to surviving an event is independent of its probability, and instead relies on the community's preparedness for the resulting consequences. The best way to prepare is to build better, more resilient, buildings and infrastructure and simply become less vulnerable.

May marks the start of Building Safety Month, which raises public awareness to help individuals, families, and business understand what it takes to create safe and resilient structures. Organizations from across the United States urge lawmakers and decision makers to build stronger and safer homes and structures, by adopting stricter building codes.

"We've seen the devastating damage of Super Storm Sandy and the battered Jersey shore, or when a tornado rips through Arkansas," said Steve Szoke, senior director of codes and standards at the Portland Cement Association. "These are all major disasters that have happened within the last five years and caused billions in damages. Calling for stronger codes would allow for communities to bounce back sooner after another disaster."

According to a National Institute of Building Sciences Multi-Hazard Mitigation Council study, every dollar spent on reducing the potential impact of disasters saves society an average of $4. The result is cities and towns that can successfully weather any challenge while keeping tax revenues constant.

Yet, communities in disaster prone regions continue to build to minimum standards. The yearly direct cost of lost property from natural disasters in the United States averages more than $35 billion, according to the National Weather Service Office of Climate, Weather, and Weather Services. States and cities do not react to build stronger homes and communities after a tornado or hurricane. According to Szoke, communities built to last start with comprehensive planning, including building codes that produce robust structures with long service lives. "Durable buildings with high-performance features, including better disaster resistance, make cities and towns stronger, and promote community continuity."

Current building codes represent minimum requirements for construction, the lowest level of quality that will be accepted. By 2030 we will have demolished and replaced 82 billion square feet of our current building stock, or nearly one-third of our existing buildings, largely because the vast majority of them weren't designed and built to last any longer. Smart community leaders should look to the future to ensure the long-term safety and sustainability of their entire communities and to help assure a revenue stream even after disasters to provide needed community services. In addition to satisfying minimum life safety provisions, incorporating enhanced resilience into building design and construction augments economic viability, addresses societal issues, and helps communities to minimize negative environmental impacts.

Communities should enhance their building code by adopting amendments to the latest edition of the national model building codes published by the International Code Council to assure that the vulnerability of their homes, businesses and community are appropriately minimized in accordance with the local needs and exposure to disaster.