With Isaac as the latest hurricane to wreak havoc on commercial and residential structures in the Gulf Coast, key members of Congress are renewing their push to reward communities that approve appropriate building codes before disaster strikes. Cities and counties that adopt their state’s minimum standard code would qualify for 4% more in post-disaster mitigation grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — money they can use to improve drainage, elevate critical structures, and install restraining cables on bridges.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., is the primary sponsor of the Safe Building Code Incentive Act of 2011 (H.R. 2069), which the House passed last year as part of a larger bill that never made it to the Senate. A House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee held hearings on the bill in late July, the first step in moving the proposal forward this year. Proponents argue that cities and towns that pre-emptively protect critical infrastructure and facilities save the federal government huge sums in post-disaster payments.

Since 1988, FEMA has paid out $125 billion for natural disasters, more than half — $67 billion — related to hurricane damage. Had hurricane-susceptible regions enacted appropriate building codes, losses could have been reduced by $13 billion, or nearly 20%, according to one study. In other words, the U.S. Treasury would have saved $11 billion had the proposed legislation been in force. That’s a big argument in favor of the bill as Congress faces immense pressure to reduce spending in the face of the nation’s impending “fiscal cliff.”

The extra 4% would be tacked on to hazard-mitigation grants awarded to compliant communities once the U.S. president declares them a “major” disaster area. In 2011, there were 99.

The proposal is extremely important because the Obama administration’s proposed 2013 budget asks Congress to stop funding FEMA’s pre-disaster mitigation grant program. At one time in the not-too-distant past, the program was funded at an annual level of $100 million. Jim Mullen, president of the National Emergency Management Association and director of the Washington State Division of Emergency Management, says, “The past several budget cycles have seen this program dwindle to near-insignificant amounts.”

About 20 states could qualify immediately, or by making minor changes to their laws and regulations, for the additional 4%. But, says Julie Rochman, president and CEO of the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, “the incentive doesn’t mandate that a local jurisdiction adopt or enforce statewide building codes.”

Neither does the proposed legislation define what constitutes a “nationally recognized model building code.”

Codes that could qualify for that designation might not require robust enough pre-disaster mitigation. For example, the major national green building standard for both new and existing buildings is the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program — which doesn’t require compliance with any building code. Thus, says Association of State Floodplain Managers Executive Director Chad Berginnis, “it’s possible to obtain LEED certification without addressing life-safety criteria, much less long-term durability.”

Stephen Barlas is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer who covers regulatory issues, with a special emphasis on EPA.

Update: Check out this interesting analysis of Hurricane Katrina research as it relates to Hurricane Sandy.

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