U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta: Let’s brace for natural disasters with better building strategies

May 6, 2014
Opinion Editorial

As anyone from our part of Pennsylvania knows, natural disasters can strike with fury, leaving behind tremendous devastation of homes and businesses.

Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee formed in quick succession in 2011 and cut wide swaths of destruction, taking lives and destroying and damaging thousands of properties. To say the very least, natural disasters of these kinds are extremely disruptive to people and the economy, and impose massive cleanup and rebuilding costs on taxpayers.

I have long championed helping people rebuild following a massive storm by introducing the Disaster Loan Fairness Act, which would reduce interest rates on Small Business Administration disaster loans for homeowners, renters and businesses through a discounted, market-based system. This is, however, an approach that responds to the damage after it occurs, rather than preventing it.

Over the last three decades, storms like Irene and Lee have caused more than $1 trillion in damages and related costs. There is no doubt that addressing the aftermath of such natural catastrophes is something with which government can assist, but it is my view that we should also look at methods by which we prevent such widespread consequences in the future. By the preventive practice known as mitigation, we could ease the post-storm suffering on a large scale simply by taking precautionary measures.

Since May is National Building Safety Month, it is appropriate to highlight mitigation. There are a variety of ways to use the practice to lessen future damage, such as elevating homes out of floodways or removing debris from waterways to make drainage easier. Building owners may install storm shutters, roof storm clips or tie-downs to help structures withstand high winds and prevent devastating losses and costs. We know mitigation efforts such as building codes, flood-proofing and earthquake design standards can relieve or, in some cases, eliminate the human and financial impact of disasters on the nation. As the chairman of the Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I am working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to explore ways Congress can help encourage mitigation practices that will save lives and taxpayer money from disasters.

Several congressional members have offered approaches to facilitate mitigation and encourage the building of stronger and more disaster-resistant communities. These proposals include incentives for state and local governments to improve their building codes, which can reduce building damage and protect people from harm during a catastrophe. Other bills provide tax incentives to individual home builders or homeowners if they choose strong building materials and construction methods. Another proposal would allow individuals to set aside up to $5,000 annually in tax-free accounts for disaster mitigation expenses. While all of these measures need to be evaluated closely and evaluated for their impacts on taxpayers, they do share a common characteristic: they are incentives, and not mandates.

Last fall, I visited the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety’s state-of-the-art research center in South Carolina and witnessed a wildfire demonstration. The exercise showed how modern building science and best practices can help structures withstand the impact of wildfires. Later in the day, I heard more about the difference resilient homes, communities and individuals can make in helping lessen the impact of other disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding and even earthquakes.

I am encouraging my congressional colleagues to take a close look at this issue, using National Building Safety Month as an opportunity to educate policymakers about the advancements in building science and the difference implementing these measures can make to our communities. As a member of Congress who has met with the victims of natural disasters, I am always looking for ways to prevent such misery.

We should take every opportunity to explore ways to mitigate the loss of life and costs of natural disasters, and we should examine the role that modern building science can play in achieving these important goals. And ideally, our approach should be based on incentives – and not mandates from Washington.