One foot can make a lot of difference during a flood. Some Louisianans will find that out the hard way. In November 2016, the Louisiana State Uniform Construction Code Council adopted the 2015 International Residential Code, thus removing the minimum one foot of elevated space, also known as “freeboard,” that had been required for special flood hazard areas.
Apparently, the LSUCCC missed the massive flooding that hit the state three months earlier. While that level of flooding was a 1,000-year event, floods are common in Louisiana, especially in the special flood hazard areas in question. According to the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, just two inches of floodwaters typically will cause $21,000 in damage, while four inches will cost an average of $39,000.
Building codes aren’t exciting issues for the average homeowner, but protecting against flood damage in the Pelican State shouldn’t be taken lightly. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, “a coastal flood with a wave crest three to four feet above the bottom of the floor beam (approximately one to two feet above the walking surface of the floor) will be sufficient to substantially damage or destroy most light-frame residential and commercial construction.”
If you’re curious about what difference a foot makes, just ask the owners of the thousands of homes in the Baton Rouge area that experienced water levels of less than 12 inches.
It’s common sense to require construction to clear at least 1 foot above the base flood elevation. This isn’t simply more government bureaucracy; it can save Louisianans significant amounts of money. Whether they experience a flood or not, elevated structures are eligible for flood insurance premium discounts. “Upfront costs are generally only about 0.25 to 1.5 percent of the total construction costs for each foot of freeboard,” FEMA notes. “However, the long-term savings on flood insurance will more than offset these costs.”
Rejecting the freeboard requirement simply means that taxpayers might be left paying the bill for their neighbors who don’t think about flood preparedness during construction. More damage from floods generally means higher future premiums for all insurance rate payers in the area. More importantly, every public dollar spent on flood recovery is one that isn’t spent on other state and federal priorities. In Louisiana, the risk is significant. An analysis of National Flood Insurance Program data by Carolyn Kousky and Erwann Michel-Kerjan revealed that “Louisiana had the highest insured losses from repetitive loss properties, followed by New York, New Jersey, Florida and Texas.”
The vast majority of special flood hazard areas in Louisiana haven’t adopted the freeboard requirement, but allowing the LSUCCC to do away with it entirely isn’t wise. What the state should do is explore options to harden structures along the coast to prevent recurring losses, which likely could be prevented through more fiscally sound policies.
As it turns out, a foot does make a lot of difference when the water rises. The LSUCCC and Louisiana’s politicians would be wise to take notice and consider moving in a better direction along the coast: Up.
Cameron Smith is state programs director and general counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based R Street Institute. William Booher is interim executive director of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy in New Orleans. Both organizations are nonprofits that promote free market principles.