I was honored to serve on the Louisiana Uniform Building Code Task Force that led to creation of the first statewide residential building code more than ten years ago. And, along with our many partners, we support state leaders and the Louisiana State Uniform Construction Code Council (LSUCCC) for creating a system to foster adoption and enforcement of current building codes to ensure the safety and welfare of the citizens of Louisiana.
Unfortunately, it appears that the LSUCCC is on the cusp of a policy decision today that will undermine the effectiveness of that very system created in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The LSUCCC is one vote away from adopting the 2015 International Residential Code (IRC), amended to remove the minimum one foot of elevated space (or freeboard) in special flood hazard areas. As you might imagine, the state famous as “Bayou Country” has an abundance of low-lying, special flood hazard areas.
Freeboard is the term handed down from nautical engineering where it describes the distance between the deck of a ship and the waterline. The higher the freeboard, the more protected the vessel is from taking on water. The same applies to buildings and homes. Freeboard provides a critical measure of safety and financial protection through extra height in elevation to keep floodwaters shy of the doorstep and out of a home.
Keeping just a few inches of water away is beneficial as it can prevent thousands of dollars of damage to floor finishes, electrical wiring, contents, and more. Two inches of water typically causes $21,000 in damage, and four inches will cost an average of $29,650.
The economic benefit of freeboard is proven, and was demonstrated during the East Baton Rouge flooding in August of this year. According to HUD data, approximately 24,000 of the substantially-damaged homes in that event experienced water less than one foot. This means that the one-foot freeboard requirement would have spared those families and prevented the catastrophic financial losses, disruption, and long-term recovery woes that continue today.
Another financial benefit of freeboard is that elevated structures receive annual flood insurance premium discounts with or without flooding activity. These savings add up over time and offset the initial, additional cost of construction. Further, the only cost-effective time to elevate is during new construction. Elevation after the fact is expensive, and sometimes impossible.
Ironically, it appears that Louisiana building officials are not opposed to freeboard, yet they support this weakening amendment because they prefer local control over a statewide code requirement. But the track record of local control is problematic. Only 33 jurisdictions of the 350 flood hazard jurisdictions in Louisiana have adopted the one-foot requirement. This means that only 10 percent of local officials have put these protections in place—leaving 90 percent of Louisiana residents unnecessarily at risk.
Despite our many partners’ efforts to articulate the overwhelming benefits of this logical, financially-advantageous practice, the LSUCCC seems determined to simultaneously weaken and update their most current residential code. When they do, they will not only deny Louisiana citizens essential safety and proven financial benefits, they will abandon the most effective and responsible disaster resilience action within their control.
By doing so, they are placing the financial burden on taxpayers when the inevitable floods return to Louisiana—a leadership low-point in a low-lying state.