Report: R.I. homebuilding codes don’t cover all storm risks

FLOOD-PRONE: Grover Fugate, executive director of the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council, stands in front of properties on Strand Avenue in an at-risk area for flooding near the Oakland Beach neighborhood in Warwick.
 / PBN PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO
FLOOD-PRONE: Grover Fugate, executive director of the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council, stands in front of properties on Strand Avenue in an at-risk area for flooding near the Oakland Beach neighborhood in Warwick.
 / PBN PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO

Rhode Island again scored well in a recent report on the strength and enforcement of its homebuilding codes. However, with the 2018 hurricane season underway, several factors could put the state’s housing stock at risk in the event of a major storm.

Rhode Island’s residential building-code system ranked sixth out of 18 hurricane-prone states, scoring 87 out of 100 points, according to a May report from the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, a Tampa, Fla.-based research group funded by the insurance industry.

Florida ranked first with a score of 95. Virginia was second (94) and South Carolina finished third (92). Neighboring New England states Connecticut (89) and Massachusetts (81) ranked fifth and ninth, respectively.

“The bottom line is Rhode Island has done a very good job” with its residential building-code system, said Debra Ballen, the Insurance Institute’s general counsel and senior vice president of public policy.

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“The people who run the [state Building Code] Commission are very dedicated to keeping the codes strong and keeping them updated,” Ballen said.

However, she added, the Rhode Island codes still contain a deficiency highlighted in prior editions of the Rating the States report, issued every three years. Specifically, Section R 301.2.11 of the code allows homes to be designed as partially enclosed in wind-borne debris regions as a substitute for “protecting glazed openings.”

What that means, Ballen said, is that windows, in certain cases statewide, are not required to have added protection such as hurricane shutters or special reinforced glass.

“Such a design methodology … increases the likelihood that wind-driven rain could enter a home in the event windows and glazed areas are broken during a storm, which is a concern,” the report stated.

The partially enclosed building design was eliminated long ago as an option in the International Residential Code. Updated every three years, the IRC is a comprehensive system that sets minimum standards for construction of one- and two-family homes.

Ballen said the insurance industry has been considering incentives that could be offered to homeowners who make improvements to their homes, such as putting on new, stronger roofs. One such incentive could be providing discounts in the insurance rates that homeowners pay.

“We don’t know of any states that have made [such discounts] mandatory,” she added, “but it has been discussed.”

Rhode Island currently is enforcing the 2012 edition of the IRC with state amendments. The Rating the States report recommended that Rhode Island consider updating its residential code based on the latest edition of the IRC.

The report also found that Rhode Island’s residential codes for high-wind design have “several weak provisions” for roof truss-to-wall connections, as well as design and anchorage of shear walls.

In Rhode Island, another cause for concern is changes to flood-zone maps, done in recent years by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Grover Fugate, executive director of the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council, which oversees development and protection of the state’s coastal areas.

Fugate said the changes by FEMA in many cases have lowered projected flood levels around Rhode Island, meaning that some homes could be built at lower elevations more vulnerable to flooding. The map changes are particularly alarming, he said, considering the increased risk for major storms and rising sea levels.

“Their information [at FEMA] is flawed. They underestimated the flooding in coastal areas,” Fugate said, adding, “All it would take is the right storm track at high tide and some homes could be taken out.”

In response, he added, the CRMC, using different data than FEMA, developed its own, more cautious set of flood maps. The council has been in discussions with the state Building Code Commission and Rhode Island homebuilders about using the council’s flood maps as an alternative to FEMA’s maps. Such maps typically are integrated into building codes.

Meanwhile, 2017 was the most costly year on record for weather-related disasters in the United States, with damages totaling about $306 billion, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In its outlook for the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season, NOAA is projecting an average to above-average season, which began June 1 and ends Nov. 30. The agency’s outlook calls for 10-16 named storms. That includes five to nine hurricanes, one to four of which are expected to be major hurricanes.

Colorado State University, which also issues a key hurricane outlook, expects an average hurricane season with 14 named storms. That includes six hurricanes, two of which are expected to be major.