Strengthening Communities through Building Codes

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Aerial view of damaged homes and debris lined streets in a neighborhood hit by Hurricane Sandy.
Aerial views of debris and damage left in the wake of Sandy in Long Beach, N.Y., outside of New York City. Following the hurricane, a nor’easter struck the area causing more damage and additional flooding. Photo courtesy of FEMA.

Natural disasters can level entire communities, leaving thousands of damaged structures in their path. As local governments work to return their citizens, businesses, and community organizations to safe, sanitary, structures, it’s easy to lose sight of opportunities to not just rebuild structures to their pre-disaster state, but to build them back stronger. Communities who integrate structural resilience into their disaster recovery can significantly mitigate the impacts of future disasters on the built environment.

An easy first step is to review existing local building codes and standards. Are they addressing the natural hazards your community faces? Do they meet the bare minimum, or exceed them? Are these codes enforced on new and existing buildings?

“IBTS is a strong advocate of implementing and enforcing building codes that meet or exceed minimum requirements,” says IBTS Director of Building Department Services Paul Hancher. “We’ve seen first-hand the impact that adopting resilient building standards can have on protecting the citizens of a community during weather related incidents.”

Federal disaster assistance agencies, including FEMA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s CDBG-DR program, are also strong advocates of implementing codes more stringent than the bare minimum requirements.

FEMA, for example, offers a suite of building code resources, organized by disaster type. They also have a special focus on seismic codes, noting the common saying: “earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do.” Want to get started on safeguarding your buildings and citizens from earthquake damage? Read these tips on seismic code revision and implementation to get started.

Likewise, communities enrolled in a CDBG-DR program can be reimbursed for the cost of conducting inspections using their own employees, contracting for code enforcement inspection services, or contracting with another unit of government to perform code inspection services. IBTS recommends using trained disaster inspectors, who can easily spot disaster-induced damage years after the disaster and also spot damage that wasn’t caused by the disaster. Thinking of using your own inspectors? Read more about the benefits of using trained disaster inspectors.

And local building departments don’t (and shouldn’t) wait until after a disaster to revisit their local building codes. Reviewing them regularly to ensure compliance with the latest standards and providing close oversight on code enforcement is crucial to ensuring buildings in your community can withstand future severe weather events. Get your wheels turning with these ides for ensuring structural resilience throughout your community.