As a result of the changing climate, natural hazards like hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires are expected to continue to increase in both intensity and frequency. Therefore, it is critical that communities around the globe prioritize increasing their overall resiliency.
Understanding this, the bipartisan infrastructure bill that recently cleared the U.S. Senate includes investments to make public works infrastructure, like highways and the electric grid, more resilient. The bill also addresses wildfire risk through traditional avenues, like forestry management and suppression. Yet, at a time when most people spend more than 90% of their time indoors, the bill does not meaningfully address resiliency in the built environment, as it relates to wildfires or other hazards.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) views the adoption and effective implementation of hazard resistant building codes as the most effective community mitigation measure against hazard risk. Building codes and standards establish requirements for new construction and renovations and fit within an ecosystem of building policies that support the health, safety, and economic welfare of the communities who adopt them. Governments and communities must do their part by committing the effort and resources to proactively adopt, implement, and enforce hazard resistant codes and standards to help reduce risk and increase community resilience. However, Congress can and should do more. As the House and Senate consider reconciliation legislation, it will be crucial that strong building codes are a focal point to enhance safety in communities and save lives.
The Economic and Distributive Costs of the Status Quo
According to FEMA, about two-thirds of communities facing hazard risk have not adopted hazard resistant codes. While in recent years, 30% of new construction has taken place in communities with either no codes or codes that have not been updated this century. Considering this variation, the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) has found that adopting current codes provides $11 in mitigation benefits for every $1 invested. Plus, retrofitting homes in the wildland urban interface to wildland fire codes could provide a national benefit as high as $8 to $1.
These benefits would be felt most acutely by families on or below the poverty line. Research shows that disasters hit low- and moderate-income families the hardest because they are more likely to live in homes built in hazard-prone areas or homes with lower quality construction. Consequently, low- and middle-income families are at greater risk of damage to or loss of their homes and are at higher risk of being displaced by a disaster.
Governmental Assistance Is Vital to Promote More Resilient Construction
Over the next several weeks, Congress will be reconvening to shape and finalize reconciliation legislation. To meaningfully advance resiliency within communities, the following proposals should be considered:
- Provide $300 million in dedicated funding to enable FEMA to support the adoption and implementation of hazard resistant building codes more effectively. Lack of resources is one of the main reasons communities, particularly rural and smaller communities, do not update their building codes by adopting more recent editions, fully implement the codes they have, or modernize their efforts. These funds will help communities adopt hazard resistant codes tailored to area hazards and their built environment, fully implement the codes already in place, and allow local building departments to digitize their efforts, improving disaster response and speeding-up construction. While there are pre-existing programs that fund code activities, such as FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) and Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP), due to their structure, these programs have not addressed the outstanding need that such dedicated funding is necessary.
- Ensure infrastructure investments, at minimum, adhere to current building codes. Although the federal government requires current codes for its own portfolio, FEMA is the only federal entity that requires federally assisted projects to adhere to up-to-date building codes and standards. Without this requirement, federally assisted infrastructure – including major projects constituting more than $360 billion in grants and other assistance under President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan – will be built to outdated codes and standards in many parts of the country.
- Enact tax incentives like the Disaster Savings and Resilient Construction Act of 2021 or rebates like the Home Wildfire Risk Reduction Rebate Program of last Congress’s Clean Economy Jobs and Innovation Act. These efforts would incentivize wildfire resistant construction and retrofits and would complement communities’ efforts to transition to stronger base codes.
The impact of natural hazards is increasing. To ensure the safety and welfare of communities, the path forward must include a focus on the adoption, implementation, and use of modern, hazard-resistant building codes and standards.
Dominic Sims is the chief executive officer at the International Code Council.
Pete Gaynor was the FEMA administrator under President Donald Trump and is currently senior vice president and director for National Resilience, Response and Recovery Programs at the LiRo Group.
Craig Fugate was the FEMA administrator under President Barack Obama and is currently the chief resilience officer at resilience startup One Concern.