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The Role of Building Codes

“Building codes are not only written by officials, engineers and architects, but also the development industry through market pressures related to keeping cost of development low. Due to the demands of special interests, building codes should be recognized as a compromise between numerous parties and are at best minimum standards designed to protect life, not guarantee the performance of a building under unusual pressure and loading.” The mass public, however, thinks of codes as the as an absolute for safety (Comerio, 1998, page).

Even on risers this wooden house was structurally destroyed

Even on risers, this wooden house was totally destroyed

Prior to 1950, the City of New Orleans had very loose building code regulations. It was not until after Hurricane Katrina that Louisiana adopted a state wide building code. The first form of building codes for the city, requiring slab foundations to be 12 inches (1 foot) above and pier risers to be 24 inches (2 feet) above the natural ground level, was updated during the 1950’s to require foundations to be “18 inches above the highest point of the curb adjacent to the property and the lowest support beams for houses raised above ground level on piers to be 24 inches (2 feet) above the curb” (Colton, 2005, page).

After repeated inundations caused a flood of insurance claims, FEMA filed a law suit against Jefferson Parish in 1981 arguing that the parish was not enforcing proper mitigation measures for the area. As a result, Jefferson Parish adopted new structurally oriented solutions, changing building codes to require “slab foundations to be 18 inches above the crown of the road in front of new homes and first floors of elevated homes to be at least 18 inches above the crown. Any new homes built in repetitive loss areas must be raised above the 100-year flood level (Based on 1988 FEMA Flood Plain maps) (Colton, 2005, 159).

“Despite these new codes, it was not until the 1980’s that inspectors received training in floodplain management policies and began to enforce” code requirements yet, even prior to the Hurricane Katrina event, development was underway immediately next to neighborhoods that had experienced serious flooding in the past (Colton, 2005, 160).

The Local Sheriff's Home after Katrina (FEMA)

The Local Sheriff's Home after Katrina (FEMA)

“Disaster-resistant construction of buildings and infrastructure is an essential component of local resiliency and investigations after disasters have revealed shortcomings in construction techniques and code enforcement around the country” (Mileti, 1999).

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