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What the devastation from Hurricane Ian tell us about Florida's building codes


Hurricane Ian was the latest reminder for the need to adapt our infrastructure to deal with the rapidly changing climate. Florida had been preparing for such storms since Hurricane Andrew struck in the early 1990s. The state updated its building codes to make sure new buildings could survive high-wind speeds. But the widespread damage seen during Ian has some asking if the current code is strong enough or if building codes are even the answer to increasingly powerful storms.

Joining us now is Kathy Baughman McLeod, director of the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center and a former Florida energy and climate commissioner. Kathy, Florida already has some pretty tough building codes when it comes to hurricane. What more possibly can be done, especially after what we've seen with Hurricane Ian?

KATHY BAUGHMAN MCLEOD: We need to make the building codes that are strong even stronger. You know, the storms we're seeing are hotter and wetter and slower and bigger. And so we're not ready, even with the codes that we have.

MARTÍNEZ: Wouldn't that make building a lot more expensive, I mean, to the point where maybe people just can't afford to build these homes or even live there?

BAUGHMAN MCLEOD: Well, that might be a good thing. We want to direct people in places that are safe and get people away from dangerous places. And so building codes are a part of that. But they're not the entire picture. We've got to have a mix of plans, including retreat.

MARTÍNEZ: So when you say building codes aren't part of the full picture and you say retreat, retreat as in don't live in certain areas, particularly ones that are high-risk areas?

BAUGHMAN MCLEOD: Yes. And we don't - the cost of living in those places is not truly reflected because insurance rates and mortgages and all those things don't reflect that. And so the codes are a part and can be a strong part, but the size of what's coming from increased climate impacts is too big for us to code ourselves out of.

MARTÍNEZ: Do you think, though, Kathy, there is political will to tell people where they can't live? I mean, I'm in California, and wildfires have caused billions of dollars of damage and lots of loss of life in the last few years. And Governor Gavin Newsom has said he will never block homebuilding, even in high-risk fire areas. But should we start telling people where they can't live for their own safety?

BAUGHMAN MCLEOD: I think it's time to reconsider what we're doing, given the size of what we're facing, so, yes. And when some people live in one place, it puts the lives of other people at risk, including our public safety folks. And so it's time for a new plan.

MARTÍNEZ: What about insurance because it's tough to get earthquake insurance in California, as it is to get certain types of insurance in Florida? Could that be maybe a way around having all of these places in dangerous spots?

BAUGHMAN MCLEOD: Yes. And you'll find in some of the states with the big risks that the states have their own insurance companies. So those companies are providing insurance in places that are - as the insurer of last resort, meaning they're insuring places that are really dangerous. And so one of the ways we can do that is to say we can't insure you here. We can't give you a mortgage here, and we won't zone for development here. Those are all really strong ways in terms of policy to keep people protected and to protect the economy.

MARTÍNEZ: I know nationwide, FEMA says that nearly two-thirds of communities have not adopted the latest building codes. What more can be done to encourage a lot of these places to just become more resilient and really adopt these building codes?

BAUGHMAN MCLEOD: Well, when you go to rebuild, we need to think about, should we rebuild in this place? We need to stop developing in high-risk areas. We need to map and prioritize the most vulnerable people and neighborhoods from all of the heat and fire and storm that we're facing.

MARTÍNEZ: Map and prioritize vulnerable people - what does that mean?

BAUGHMAN MCLEOD: It means you can assess the vulnerability of your community and say this neighborhood is vulnerable. You can be vulnerable because you live in a place that's prone to flooding or to storm surge. And you can also be vulnerable because you're socioeconomically vulnerable. I mean, the people being pulled out of the rubble in Fort Myers Beach are not rich people. Those were people very low on the economic ladder.

MARTÍNEZ: But here's the thing, and I've seen it in California - people rebuild almost right away in a place that was absolutely wrecked and devastated. I'm sure in Florida that probably will be the case as well. So at this point, what are - what is the one option that might work?

BAUGHMAN MCLEOD: The one option is for public policy to prevent folks from moving back into places that are so dangerous. It's very sensitive. It's very tough. But again, it's time for a new plan. And we've got to protect the most vulnerable and protect our economy. And the way to do that is to not build in these dangerous places.

MARTÍNEZ: Kathy Baughman McLeod, director of the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, thank you very much, Kathy.


(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.