Natural disasters are wreaking havoc on the country’s communities and budget. The Federal Alliance for Safe Homes wants to emphasize how building codes can reduce the effects.
As hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and tornadoes have devastated communities during recent years—including last weekend’s storms that tore through several southwestern states—the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH) has felt the pressure to ensure local leaders are mandating up-to-date building codes.
With the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration saying there’s already been five severe weather events this year (as of April 6) that cost more than $1 billion each, FLASH President and CEO Leslie Chapman-Henderson explained that disaster resilience “begins with life safety, but very rapidly is followed up with an out-of-control economic crisis.”
In an effort to better inform state and local leaders of the importance of disaster-resilient building, FLASH and the Federal Emergency Management Agency created the DisasterSmart – Leadership for a Resilient Future initiative.
The initiative aggregates studies on building code costs and benefits, code research, community case studies, best practices, and FLASH content in order to create a repository of resources for community decision makers. Through videos and commentaries, the initiative also highlights policy fundamentals, code-incentivized relief programs, and building-safety partnerships.
“Getting disaster safety and stronger, better buildings accomplished is not that straightforward. It’s technical,” Chapman-Henderson said. “So DisasterSmart today is all about helping people catch up on what it means and what the policy implications are. I think DisasterSmart in the future is a way for us to also recognize and thank leaders who do stand up for building codes and make the investment.”
In addition to the online resources, FLASH provides its expertise through a hotline, as well as in-person through briefings for national or state leaders and workshops for local leaders and businesses.
FLASH and FEMA created the initiative in response to a lack of understanding around building codes and in order to connect community leaders with the knowledge needed to make informed decisions on building.
“We just hear the same message over and over again: highly technical issue, not an everyday thing, kind of complex to understand,” Chapman-Henderson said. “And what the leaders have told us is, ‘If we’re going to act on these things, we need reliable information.’”
But this lack of understanding isn’t because of a lack of available information. She explained that experts in the field publish new building code models every three years based on new insights, research, and lessons learned from major disasters.
“Every time we have a hurricane or an earthquake, we learn things,” she said. “Those things go into the model codes so in a perfect world one would presume that those model codes would be adopted, updated, and incorporated, and all the buildings across the U.S. would be constructed in a way that is informed and improved. Unfortunately, there is a breakdown.”
The challenge is helping leaders recognize the importance of investing in updating, or just establishing, building codes. A 2005 Multihazard Mitigation Council study, currently being updated, says for every dollar invested in building codes, there’s a $4 return.
“The benefits of building codes often can be very long-term, and [leaders] have very short-term needs, so it’s hard sometimes to balance that,” Chapman-Henderson said. “So that’s what we’re trying to do is make them see all the near-term and long-term benefits of enacting [building codes].”