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Diaz-Balart and Sires: Strong Model Building Codes Equal Disaster Defense

From the tornadoes that ravaged Alabama and Missouri to the severe flooding along the Mississippi River to Hurricane Irene’s pounding of the East Coast, we have been reminded throughout the year of the dramatic manner in which major storms can disrupt communities and destroy lives.

The economic losses associated with major weather events in 2011 are already among the most costly in the nation’s history. Ten disasters this year have resulted in combined damages of more than $40 billion.

Mother Nature is sending us a wake-up call. We need to answer it and move decisively to promote sound strategies to mitigate the devastation of future disasters and to save taxpayer money. The foundation of our national response should be the statewide adoption of model building codes that will make our homes and office buildings more resistant to nature’s forces. It is not enough to simply pass another supplemental appropriations bill and wait for the next storm to hit.

As Congress takes urgent action to help communities rebuild from Irene’s devastation, it is vital that we seize this opportunity to encourage states to update their building codes in a manner that will protect property, save lives and ultimately reduce taxpayer exposure to natural disasters.

While the evidence is overwhelming that strong building codes work, most states have yet to adopt them or put in place inspection mechanisms to ensure compliance.

That’s why we — along with our GOP colleagues Reps. Richard Hanna (N.Y.) and Steve Southerland (Fla.) — have introduced the Safe Building Code Incentive Act. This legislation provides a financial incentive for states to voluntarily adopt and enforce model national building codes for the construction of new residential and commercial properties. Qualifying states would receive an additional 4 percent in post-disaster relief grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to address long-term hazard mitigation, such as improving drainage structures, restraining cables on bridges and installing window shutters for hospitals and other critical facilities.

Encouraging states to adopt model national building codes can help fortify our nation’s defenses against major storms. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana State University’s Hurricane Center conducted a landmark study on the effectiveness of model building codes. The findings were eye-opening. If strong building codes had been in place, wind damage from Katrina would have been reduced by 80 percent, saving $8 billion.

LSU also studied the effect of Katrina in Mississippi and found that with strong building codes in place, economic losses would have been reduced by $3.1 billion and that almost 40,000 buildings would have been spared major damage.

Given the financial realities facing the nation and the fact that the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction will suck up much of the oxygen in Washington this fall, an obvious question about our legislation and any supplemental funding bill is: Where will the money come from for the additional relief assistance?

Our bill is crafted in a manner that won’t require a new appropriation to FEMA. The additional 4 percent of funding awarded to qualifying states struck by future disasters would be paid for by reallocating existing funds inside the FEMA-managed Disaster Relief Fund. Furthermore, additional research shows that investments in mitigation activities, such as the adoption of strong building codes, generate big returns for taxpayers and the economy. According to a 2005 FEMA-commissioned study by the National Institute of Building Sciences, for every $1 spent on hazard mitigation at the federal level, the nation reaps $4 in benefits.

The facts surrounding strong building codes are clear and widely embraced by disaster mitigation experts and emergency management officials. As Congress considers disaster funding in response to Hurricane Irene, the Safe Building Code Incentive Act can make our homes and communities safer and stronger while reducing long-term costs, ultimately saving taxpayer dollars. We can’t afford to pass up an opportunity to do something lasting for the American people.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) is a member of the Appropriations Committee. Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.) is a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

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