Gulf South Struggles
While rural victims of Katrina ponder that question, rural residents in Rita's wake are beginning to face some of the same problems. Boston-based Hurricane-tracking company AIR Worldwide, says its first computer-based calculations estimate U.S. losses from Hurricane Rita at $2.5 to $5 billion.
While not in Rita's immediate path, rural Harris County, on the Texas side of the Texas-Louisiana border, reports damage of about $111 million. Unlike Katrina, Rita hit hardest in the less heavily populated areas like the Texas towns of Jasper and Beaumont and Louisiana towns of Cameron, Lake Charles, and Creole.
The Insurance Information Institute, a trade group in New York, estimated U.S. damage due to Rita at perhaps $4 to $5 billion. Even if the smaller amount proves correct, Rita joins last year's hurricanes Francis and Jeanne on the list of the top ten most expensive storms in U.S. history.
To Rebuild or Not to Rebuild?
Despite the magnitude of the losses, there's little talk in devastated areas of not rebuilding. In fact, most of the talk is about coming back stronger than before, according to Jeff Burton, building code manager for the Institute of Business & Home Safety (IBHS), a disaster-safety trade association based in Tampa, Florida.
"Louisiana state leaders are adamant about the fact that things will be rebuilt. Our concern is that things are built better and safer than they were before," Burton says. "That would require Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi to update their building codes."
Indeed, when the director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center ran the "what-if" HAZUS-MH Hurricane Wind Model, a state-of-the-art risk assessment program for analyzing hurricane losses, he found dramatic results.
Had Katrina made landfall slightly west of New Orleans instead of just east of the city, the number of damaged and destroyed houses in Louisiana might have doubled to well over half a million. However, designing for high winds could reduce that damage by 75 percent.
One problem is that Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana do not currently have residential building codes! In fact, these are the only three states that don't abide by the International Residential Code.
"Consumers in these states are totally unprotected," says Nanette McElman, P.E., hurricane market manager at Solutia, a St. Louis, Missouri-based manufacturer of hurricane-resistant residential building materials. "It's not like these hurricanes were freak accidents. There are going to be other hurricanes. Unfortunately, while the states are talking about implementing the building codes, they may delay legislation until January."
While some metropolitan areas had adopted the most updated code allowed under state law, it was the rural areas that suffered the consequences of having the most outdated codes and no staff in place to maintain a specified level of safety in residential structures.
Upgrading Building Codes
"We want to take the best that Florida has to offer and try to put it into a plan for the state of Louisiana that would include the rural areas," Burton says. "There are different factors in building success. Obviously the first one is building codes."
The IBHS is recommending that the tri-state area adopt the latest version of the International Residential Code, published in 2003, and examine other factors that relate directly to the variability of wind resistance in construction.
One of those factors is compliance. The IBHS recommends that compliance staff be certified through the International Code Council. Training for design professionals that focuses on wind-related construction defined by the American Society of Civil Engineers ASCE-7 standard is also recommended.
Of course, code enforcement would add cost to new construction. Impact glass adds 7 to 9 percent to the cost of a house, according to Burton. Hurricane-approved shutters can add another 3 to 5 percent. But experts say the codes save money in the wake of major hurricanes like Andrew, Katrina, and Rita.
"You are either going to pay a little bit more money now for the mitigation of building under new construction codes, or a pay a lot later after one of these devastating storms rolls through," Burton says. "When you pay later, you have to add in priceless human lives."
Addressing Affordable Housing
How will poor rural communities afford to build according to more costly building codes? Observers say there is keen interest in affordable housing options in these areas. Townhouses, traditional houses that are closer together to reduce land costs, and mobile homes built under the new codes are possibilities.
There is some debate as to whether these rebuilt communities will look like they did before. In the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, once-quaint Hispanic communities were transformed into more modern-looking neighborhoods. Similarly, insurance adjuster Marini says, many southern towns affected by Katrina and Rita may lose some of their southern charm.
"The silver lining is these towns will be rebuilt. They will be better than before. They will be constructed to today's building codes," Marini says. "The rebuilding will drive the economy and that is one positive thing we can count on after these devastating storms."
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Jennifer LeClaire is a freelance writer based in Miami Beach, Florida, specializing in architecture and design.