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Gulf Coast States Consider Code and Zoning Change

While still picking through the debris from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Gulf Coast states have begun reexamining their building codes. The disasters have strengthened calls for areas without codes to adopt them, and for consistent codes within states.

"Every state should have a statewide minimum code," says James Lee Witt, CEO of the International Code Council (ICC) and former FEMA director. "It's critical. It's a form of mitigation."

The widespread destruction seen from the recent disasters, and predictions of more extreme weather are expected to accelerate the adoption of the International Building Code (IBC), the International Residential Code (IRC, which the ICC administers) and other safety measures. The IBC and IRC contain provisions for hurricanes, including wind-resistant roofs and doors, and high-impact glass on upper floors.


“It's pretty dramatic to see areas where houses built to code survived, and houses right next to them not built to code were destroyed," says David Hardy, a partner at Guild Hardy Architects in Biloxi, Mississippi.

The Lousiana legislature in November took up the issue of statewide adoption of the IBC and IRC as minimum building codes. To date, only a handful of parishes have adopted versions of the codes, although the state now implements the IBC for state-funded projects. Under the proposed legislation, Louisiana officials would work with local authorities to adapt the codes to local conditions according to Witt.

A number of towns along the Mississippi coast have already adopted the international codes, while cities like Biloxi and Gulfport are in the process of doing so. Mississippi leaves code decisions to municipalities, although the state is expected to encourage the adoption of appropriate codes.

Either way, it will be a while before the lessons of this hurricane season work their way into building codes, according to David Bonneville, chair of the National Council of Structural Engineers Associations code advisory council. "The process of making code changes generally requires years, not months," he says. And no code can guarantee a that a build will survive a hurricane, adds New Orleans architect and planner John Williams. Between bunkers and flimsy wood houses, "somewhere in there, there's a balance," he says.

Meanwhile, FEMA has issued revised flood elevation advisories to coastal areas in the region. While official maps are not expected for at least two years (FEMA's expedited schedule), the new figures are intended to guide designers and developers. Coastal areas with levels of 11 feet to 17 feet now have a revised level of 18 feet, according to Bill Mitchell, an engineer with Brown & Mitchell, in Gulfport.

The adjusted levels have sparked questions about the suitability of FEMA's risk assessment method. FEMA's guidelines could make some areas off-limits or prohibitively expensive to build, pricing some people out of their current homes, according to critics. . "I think you'll see more structures raised on concrete and steel-type pilings," Mitchell says. "The area along the bays and coastline will be one of escalators and elevators." Steve Mouzon, a Florida architect who participated in Mississippi's reconstruction charrette, warns that if compromised main street buildings have to be rebuilt on stilts, it “creates access problems and ruins the shops around it, so you've have totally destroyed the downtown and its retail tax base."

Some designers have suggested modifying the flood risk calculation to account for building type, reasoning that masonry and reinforced concrete buildings can withstand more than wooden structures. But such an approach would still leave the buildings' contents at risk, former FEMA director Witt noted.

While there has been little new construction in the hardest-hit coastal areas, clients are interested in raised permanent structures, according to designers. In the meantime, the high demand for temporary, modular structures raises the issue of code compliance for those buildings, as well.

Ted Smalley Bowen