Even As the Ground Shakes Near Memphis, Leaders Chose Denial Over Disaster Safety

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Photo Credit: WBIR

Last week, I used this forum to discuss the first of our six recommendations to innovate the U.S. building code system published in our new commentary, Disaster Resilience Rising Means the Time is Right. This week, I am scheduled to discuss our second recommendation:

2. Optimize property protection opportunities in model   code and standard development by balancing all of the existing values, including public health, safety, and welfare.

This is a timely discussion in light of action underway at the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission where it is clear that some Tennessee officials are missing the critical linkage between public policy and disaster safety.

The purpose of the International Residential Code is “to establish minimum requirements to safeguard the public safety, health and general welfare….” Unfortunately, the issue of cost is often the loudest argument against the adoption of modern building codes. But the welfare of the family, or families, during the expected lifespan of a home should be given equal weight in building code considerations.

Today, however, the upfront cost to the builder or first buyer has eclipsed the critical, long-term value of welfare.

And this is exactly the problem in Memphis and Shelby County, where city council members and county commissioners are poised to complete passage of amendments that will further weaken home bracing requirements by as much as 50 percent.

Some background: In 2014, after decades of delay, these same leaders implemented a compromise that required modern earthquake bracing for the first time. However, that compromise fell short of the model code by about 30 percent, allowing homebuilders to construct homes below the suggested levels of minimum, national life-safety codes.

Now they are moving to further reduce requirements essential for safety in not just earthquakes, but floods, and high winds. They are suggesting short-term cost savings as a justification for this eye-popping action, ignoring long-term home quality.

They are also placing unknowing families in potentially deadly jeopardy.

According to news reports, Councilman Reid Hedgepeth constructed a $750,000 home last summer, and identified the cost for seismic requirements at about $10,000, or 1.33% of the total construction cost. By his support of the new amendments, are he and his peers (including Councilman Jim Strickland) saying that a one percent savings is worth the risk that a home will collapse in an earthquake, float away in a flood, or tear apart in a windstorm?

This latest Memphis situation is another incident in a long-running back and forth between local homebuilder interests and a coalition of academics, architects, emergency managers, engineers, risk communicators, safety advocates, and scientific researchers. The coalition has gone to extraordinary lengths to work with local builders and elected officials by providing extensive, third-party studies to overcome the fears of undue cost; by bringing forth national experts with unassailable building science performance data to explain the value of the new building practices; and much more.

Even after all this sincere effort, and a 3.5 magnitude earthquake next door in Tipton County this week, local leaders are still willing to abandon the needed upgrades.

Last August, the South Napa Valley earthquake provided proof positive of phenomenal building performance driven by use of the new model codes. Sadly, Memphis and Shelby County have gone barely a year with their improved code, and soon they will again build in a way that is certain to fall short when the worst happens there.

According to the Oxford dictionary, welfare is defined as, “the health, happiness, and fortunes of a person or a group.”

With the amendments close to passage, all we are left to do is etch the names of the officials involved into the public record. That way, when the worst happens, we can recognize the path to diminished “health, happiness, and fortunes” for residents of Western Tennessee. 

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