And Don’t Blame Houston’s Building Codes, Either

Like the Genesis tales of the Great Flood and Sodom and Gomorrah, several news outlets are blaming Hurricane Harvey’s destruction on its victims’ moral failings. If not for Houstonians’ impious laissez-faire attitude toward zoning and building codes, the storm would have been less damaging—so say Newsweek and the Washington Post, anyway.

Vanessa Brown Calder debunks the zoning claim here. But what of building codes? At first blush, it seems reasonable to argue that government should have required new construction to be more resilient to severe weather. Problem is, the empirical evidence is unclear on whether supposedly storm-toughened building codes make much difference.

The late University of Georgia economist Carolyn Dehring spent much of her career examining the effects of coastal areas’ storm-protection regulations. In this Regulation article with the University of Wisconsin’s Martin Halek, she specifically looked at the effectiveness of federal requirements for building codes in hurricane zones. The authors found that houses built prior to the federally mandated codes were more resilient in hurricanes than houses built under the codes. The codes apparently encouraged a “race to the bottom” in which builders focused on meeting the government requirements rather than nature’s destructiveness.

On the other hand, a new working paper examines the effects of Florida’s 2001 statewide building code that was drafted in response to the damages from 1992’s Hurricane Andrew. The authors find that wind damages to homes built under the code were much less than damages to homes built prior to the code. More important, the savings from the reduced damages more than offset the increased construction costs under the code. Peter Van Doren summarizes this paper here.

So, for now, it seems uncertain whether government building codes provide effective protection against extreme weather—especially weather that drops 50+ inches of rain in a few days’ time.