A Half a Decade Later, Tightened Codes and Product Awareness Help Secure Much of the Gulf from Hurricane Damage
August 23, 2010

 Nearly five years ago, Hurricane Katrina pounded its way along the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005. The storm, which had high wind speeds of 175 miles per hour, weakened before landfall to a Category 4 and turned slightly eastward before coming ashore early that morning. Scores of windows were blown out at New Orleans hotels, including the French doors on the balcony at the hotel Le Richelieu in the city’s French Quarter, as well as broken windows throughout the high-rise Hyatt in the city’s downtown waterfront area. Today, the recovery continues and some residents in the most severely affected areas of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi continue to struggle.

 Lax enforcement of building codes in some states (and lack of codes at all in others) are often cited as among the main reasons the damage was so great. 

Since that time, though, much has been done to improve and enforce building codes in the Gulf States.
Thomas J. Kopec, North American architectural manager with DuPont, says more and more jurisdictions are adopting building codes.

“The key is that Louisiana and Mississippi adopted statewide building codes providing for more consistent construction,” says Kopec. “The International Residential Code (IRC) and International Building Code (IBC) allow communities to protect businesses and homes from the destructive power of hurricanes.”

Vinu Abraham, chief executive officer and partner with Hurricane Test Laboratory in Riviera Beach, Fla., adds, “The single biggest change is that there is a lot more awareness of the IBC/IRC and the roles these codes play in construction. Both have provisions that address hurricanes.”

While Louisiana and Mississippi have both adopted state-wide codes, Alabama has not as of yet. But Abraham says it’s probably just a matter of time.

“The fact is when hurricane winds blow they move around debris and when that debris hits the glass it can cause damage [if the systems are not properly engineered and installed],” he says.

Still, some say the Gulf has a ways to go. According to a report from the Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS), building codes along the Gulf Coast today are, for the most part, inadequate. IBHS recently published the study, “Five Years Later – Are We Better Prepared?", which provides an analysis of pre- and post-Katrina building codes in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. According to the study, some of the findings include:

  • Louisiana adopted a statewide code, but the state has struggled financially to staff and manage building inspection departments. Design professionals, contractors and subcontractors are still in the process of learning the new code and altering their construction practices in order to comply.
  • Seven of Mississippi’s 82 counties are required to enforce the wind and flood requirements of the 2003 International Building Code and 2003 International Residential Code. In 2006, lawmakers created the Mississippi Building Code Council. After some initial progress, the push for statewide building code adoption met with significant opposition, which led to several unsuccessful legislative efforts.
  • Alabama has not adopted strong building codes statewide despite widespread damage from Hurricane Katrina. The limited building code requirements that do exist are governed by the Alabama Building Commission, which requires state-owned buildings, hotels and motels, and movie theaters to follow the 2006 IBC. Individual cities are not prohibited from adopting modern codes, but adoption and enforcement is voluntary. There have been numerous unsuccessful attempts in the Alabama Legislature to pass bills that would create a statewide code.

In 2009, Alabama passed a law requiring Alabama-admitted insurance companies to provide an insurance premium reduction to owners who build, rebuild or retrofit their homes in accordance with specified standards to better withstand hurricanes and other catastrophic windstorm events.

According to another IBHS study conducted in Charlotte County, Fla., where Hurricane Charley made landfall in 2004, homes built to modern codes are much less likely to be damaged during a hurricane. In fact, the study points out that of the claims for homes built between 1996 and 2004, 38 percent fewer had window glass and/or frame damage compared to homes built before 1996. Instead, homes built between 1996 and 2004 had a higher frequency of window screen damage only.

Whether in South Florida or along the Gulf Coast, more and more building owners and homeowners are recognizing the benefits of hurricane-rated products. One possible reason relates to the fact that hurricane-resistant glazing is more widely available.

“Unlike when Andrew hit Florida in 1992 and everyone had to start from scratch [with product development] companies have found you can take a product and gear it down a bit for areas such as the Gulf Coast where hurricanes aren’t necessarily as severe as they are in South Florida,” says Abraham, who adds that in the past one of the biggest negatives around these products has been the high price tag. “With the decrease in new housing starts we’ve seen manufacturers are working to develop hurricane-rated products that are more affordably priced. In 1993 only a few manufacturers offered these products. Now, manufacturers all over the world are making them and they want to sell into this market. With more players engaged it’s starting to drive the cost down.”

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