Louisiana Mulls Building Codes in Katrina's Wake

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Insurance companies are threatening to stop offering homeowner's insurance in Louisiana unless the state imposes building codes. Now the state legislature is preparing to accept standards that could protect buildings in natural disasters.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Louisiana legislators this week are considering whether to enact a statewide building code. Until now, building codes in Louisiana have been a local concern and many communities, even along the coast, don't have them. Experts say that worsened the property damage from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. NPR's Adam Hochberg has more from Baton Rouge.

ADAM HOCHBERG reporting:

Louisiana is one of 20 states with no building code, and you can see the effects of that in the ruble of the Gulf Coast.

Mr. JAMES OWENS (Home Inspector): What we're looking at here is a rather upscale home, and you can see the bricks have fallen completely off the side of the house.

HOCHBERG: James Owens(ph) runs a home inspection business in Lake Charles, where Hurricane Rita came ashore with 110-mile-per-hour winds. He's examining what's left of a recently built $400,000 house where an exterior wall collapsed.

Mr. OWENS: That wall was blowing in the wind and consequently all of the bricks fell off the side of the house. All of that would have been prevented with one brace, costing $20 maximum, but it wasn't put there.

HOCHBERG: A lateral brace, like the one missing from this house, is typically required in coastal building codes. But in this rural area, just outside the city, there is no code, and Owens says there were plenty of homes that were damaged because of shoddy construction, like poorly installed shingles, unstable rafters or unsupported walls.

Mr. OWENS: Much of what I have seen could have been prevented if the homes had been built according to national building codes.

HOCHBERG: Indeed, while much of the attention after the hurricanes focused on flooded houses in New Orleans, more than quarter-million Louisiana homes were damaged not by floodwater but by high winds. A Louisiana State University study blamed poor construction for almost 80 percent of Katrina's wind damage and the director of the University Hurricane Center, Mark Levitan, says that's why Louisiana needs a building code.

Mr. MARK LEVITAN (Director, University Hurricane Center): You wouldn't buy a $3 lamp from Wal-Mart if it didn't have some sticker that said `Underwriters Laboratories, UL,' or something that says, `When I plug it in, I'm not going to get electrocuted; it's not going to short out.' But here you're going to spend a couple hundred thousand dollars on the biggest investment you're probably going to make in your life, and where's your consumer protection for that? That's what a building code does.

HOCHBERG: For years, Levitan has been calling for a building code here. But in a state that's often skeptical of government regulation, that's been a tough sell. Only now, after two hurricanes, has the idea begun to move through the Legislature. Republican Ken Hollis argued for the measure in the Louisiana Senate last week.

Senator KEN HOLLIS (Republican, Louisiana): We have to rebuild, and why don't we do it right? Why don't we send a message around the country that Louisiana is finally doing something right, and they're trying to rebuild to the standards of modern building codes?

HOCHBERG: Hollis' proposal would require new homes to withstand winds as high as 140 miles per hour near the coast, 90 miles per hour inland. The idea is backed by insurance companies, which have threatened to stop writing policies in Louisiana without it. Even the home builders lobby has voiced their support. But some rural legislators, like Democrat Robert Adley, insist building codes are unnecessary.

Senator ROBERT ADLEY (Democrat, Louisiana): I want to tell you, I watched very carefully. The lobbyists came and said, you know, they build them buildings out there, why, they're just falling over. Well, up where I live we got a lot more sense than that. They don't build houses like that.

HOCHBERG: Home builders say complying with the building code could increase the cost of new houses as much as 8 percent, a figure opponents are likely to mention as debate continues this week. For legislators, the question is whether that added cost of construction is outweighed by any savings that might be realized in the next big storm. Adam Hochberg, NPR News, Baton Rouge.

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