WILMINGTON — In the wake of Hurricane Florence and Hurricane Michael, coastal areas across the nation are taking stock of how prepared they are for a powerful storm. Especially in developing areas, a major part of that means asking questions about building codes.
Earlier this week, Wilmington Councilman Paul Lawler posed the question on Facebook. Lawler said that FEMA officials discussed the role that building codes played in which buildings survived Hurricane Michael’s devastating impact on Florida.
According to Lawler, FEMA suggested Wilmington and New Hanover County adopt stricter building codes.
Lawler wrote, “Advantages: our buildings will be more likely to survive a future hurricane. Disadvantage: it will cost more to build them. That’s important in an area where many people cannot afford to buy a house today.”
He then posed the question, “Should this area adopt a higher building standard for new buildings?”
It’s a question worth posing to the state as a whole, according to one non-profit research group.
According to the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS), the state of North Carolina needs to improve its building code to prepare for more intense storms.
The non-profit organization, which is supported by insurance companies, prepares reviews of the building codes of states every several years (you can read the IBHS 2015 assessment and 2018 assessment online).
Rating the state
In IBHS’s 2015 review of the state’s building code, several key issues were highlighted, including the length of North Carolina’s “cycle” – that is, how often it updates its code – and several specific code issues were the state had actually weakened requirements.
IBHS General Counsel and Senior Vice-President Debra Ballen, who runs the team that prepares the reports, said the state’s 2013 decision to extend the cycle length meant the state would be slow in responding to new data. The state is currently considering a new code, which would go into effect in 2019.
“It is of great concern that North Carolina has changed its code cycle from the three-year cycle – which is most other states – to a six-year cycle,” Ballen said. “Unfortunately, that means even if the state doesn’t take action it will be another six years.”
As the 2015 report puts it, “The weaknesses resulting from outdated or weakened building codes will become apparent only at the moment when resistance is most needed—when a hurricane or other disaster strikes.”
Ballen also pointed to several weakened provisions identified in the 2015 and 2018 IBHS reports, as well as reducing the “footprint” of the high-speed wind areas. In other words, while the requirements for “wind-borne debris region” – areas prone to high wind speeds from coastal storms where debris can become dangerous projectiles – weren’t weakened, the region itself was reduced. As a recent IBHS report states, “North Carolina delineates a smaller geographic area where these requirements apply.”
Other concerns, according to the 2015 report, include “weakening of the wall bracing provisions in coastal hurricane-prone regions, by allowing lower wind speed bracing requirements to be used in higher wind regions than intended by the model code.”
Another issue Ballen pointed to is the “elimination of permanent anchors installed around glazed openings (e.g., windows), making it less likely that opening protections will be adequately anchored in coastal windborne debris regions of the state.”
The report also points to the state’s system of licensing for contractors. While general, plumbing, mechanical, and electrical contractors are all given code-specific training before they are licensed, only electrical contractors are required to take continuing education classes to renew their licenses.
No licenses are required for roofing contractors in North Carolina, an issue pointed out in the 2015 and 2018 reports, and one Ballen said was particularly relevant after Hurricane Florence.
“After the storm, you have a lot fly-by-night [roofing] contractors,” Ballen said.
As Lawler pointed out, tougher building codes can mean increased construction and maintenance costs.
Take for example sealing a roof deck, which IBHS recommends.
“People think that shingles are actually a lot stronger and thicker than they are, but they fly off without that much wind, and – when there’s as much rain as a storm like Hurricane Florence – all of the sudden there’s a deluge. Not flooding, but rain penetration into the home,” Ballen said.
Sealing the roof deck just means inserting a waterproof layer between the shingles and the roof frame. The layer, in theory, would be strong enough to weather a storm if the shingles were blown off.
It’s simple enough, but it does cost money. Ballen said IBHS recommends that the state make sealed roof decks part of the building code — but also pointed to some states which have provided grants for residents who want to reinforce their homes against a storm.
Ballen pointed to programs like South Carolina’s SC Safe Home Mitigation Grant Program, which provides up to $5,000 to homeowners to help reinforce their homes, and the Strengthen Alabama Homes program, which offers $10,000 to build and maintain homes up to IBHS recommended standards.
“South Carolina, to the south of you, has had the program for about 10 years — there has really been an effort to sure up their coastal area,” Ballen said.
Other cost-defraying measures recommended by IBHS include
- Income tax credits for retrofit costs that meet specified standards
- Sales tax exemptions for structural strengthening and emergency preparation materials
- Property tax reductions for homes and businesses designated to resilience standards
- Tax-free Catastrophe Savings Accounts
This is the time
As Lawler suggested, Wilmington and New Hanover County could address code issues independent of the state. But Ballen suggested that Florence may have provided the right opportunity to address code issues state-wide.
“If the people in your area want to talk to the legislature, this is time for them to do it,” Ballen said.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at firstname.lastname@example.org, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.