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Monday, February 09, 2009

Hurricane building codes - Good enough? Study - LWV report

I have been working on a project for the Houston League of Women Voters on building codes in the Houston and coastal areas. After IKE, the questions are several: “What should we do to prepare for the next one?” “Should we follow Miami-Dade codes?” If climate change brings stronger storms, are the formulas we use out-of-date?

In Galveston, I heard how the use of two additional nails on asphalt roofs would have kept roofs that were installed after RITA from being torn off again during IKE. Loss of the roof (or windows) means millions more in internal damages, and potential injuries to the families, computers and property inside. Downtown buildings could have invested $1 million in hurricane-rated window film and avoided $20 - $800 million in internal damages, not including lost computers and files. Yet some don’t even allow it.

In doing the research for the project, one of the most fascinating and helpful pieces of data was the “Wind Zone” maps which show the lines of wind speeds – from the coast’s 150 mph to the north Houston/Harris County area which are in the 90-100 mph zone.

Today Houston uses 110-mph as its standard. Miami-Dade uses 150-mph. In southern Harris County, NASA uses 130-mph. Harris County only has a fire code because counties don’t have authority to do anything unless the legislature lets them. Inspections are hit-and-miss and may not happen at all.

Building codes remind me of the Goldilocks story. Some may be too soft (and result in repeated, avoidable damages); some may be too hard (unnecessarily driving up costs). The trick is to find one that is "just right" for future risks we face.

One thing is clear. We can't repeal the laws of geography: we will as close to the coast next year as we are this year.

Nor can we repeal the laws of nature: Like it or not, Hurricanes are an annual event. In deaths caused, it is a bigger threat than terrorism. They are Mother Nature's way of throwing off excessive heat from its equator. The hotter it gets, the more heat to dissipate via future Hurricanes.

We have to change our thinking. People went from panic in RITA in 2005 to apathy in IKE in 2008. We need a middle ground between apathy and overreaction. We need to prepare and don't panic.

The League should be releasing the report soon. As a nonpartisan study not paid for by builders' or vested interests, it could be extremely useful to city and county officials who are preparing for the next storm (which will be an annual event). The League is a non-partisan body (which also has male members) and does these studies with volunteers. They just completed one on homeowners' associations.

With the next hurricane season starting June 1, we have no time to spare.

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