The absence of a statewide building code makes Mississippi the most vulnerable of the 18 Atlantic and Gulf coast states deemed most hurricane-prone, the Insurance Institute for Business & Hone Safety says.
In rating the states, the Institute gave Mississippi a grade of 4 out of a possible 100. By comparison, Virginia and Florida both of which enacted strong codes in recent years, scored a 95.
The non-profit Tampa, Fla.-based institutes membership is made up of insurers and reinsurers that conduct business in the United States or reinsure risks located in the United States. It gave Mississippi poor marks for having neither statewide building standards nor strong regulatory processes for building code officials, contractors and subcontractors, Institute spokesman Joe King said.
"Without a building code there is no training and enforcement for officials. That was a negative reflection."
The four points Mississippi received came from its requirement for licensing of general contractors. They are required to pass an exam and the state has a mechanism for disciplining them, the Institute noted, though it emphasized that no certification process is in place for building code inspectors.
In assessing the states, the Institute applied 47 questions broken into three categories: Code adoption and enforcement; code official training and enforcement; licensing requirements for construction trades.
Each question was assigned a value reflecting its relative importance in promoting life safety and reducing property losses, the Institute said.
The Institute emphasized that the report, originally issued in early January and reissued with the start of the new hurricane season, is not intended to reprimand or reward individual states.
Julie Rochman, the Institute's president and CEO, said in a press statement that the report goes beyond just evaluating each state's code system. "The report offers each state the detailed information and tools it needs to improve irs building code processes to better protect its citizens."
Scott Jerome, deputy director of the public-private Mississippi Windstorm Underwriting Association, acknowledged Mississippi's statewide code deficiencies but questioned whether the Institute overlooked the progress the state has made in initiating strong building code standards for its coastal counties. "What needs to be understood is that on the Coast they have adopted up to the 2006 codes" of the International Building Code and International Building Code, said Jerome, whose agency administers windstorm insurance for homeowners in the coastal counties.
He noted as well that the Legislature this year authorized creation of a "mitigation council" to examine programs for homeowners to strengthen their homes and thus gain discounts on windstorm insurance premiums.
He thinks the desire for stronger codes will soon extend beyond the Coast. "I think you'll see some of the other areas of the state start looking at codes, at least the windstorm parts.
"The truth of the matter is that wind can come inland" and cause extensive damage, Jerome added, and noted new storm modeling is showing an increased threat of windstorm for the state's interior.
"There's going to be a lot more interest in wind standards throughout the state," he predicted.
Don't look, however, for county governments to support code enactments unless the state finds a way to pay for them, said Steve Surrette, executive director of the Mississippi Association of Supervisors, an organization representing elected county officials.
"If it's an unfunded mandate the odds are we are going to be against it," Surrette said.
Many rural counties have so little building activity they have no need for either codes or inspectors, he noted.
"I think building codes are a chicken-and-egg deal. If you have got a lot of development going on like on the Coast, then you have building code problems."
Building codes are grassroots driven, he said. "If people see a need they push for it."
The bulk of the counties apparently do not see much of a need, according to Surrette. "It's never been brought up for a lot of discussion in our association."
What would bring it up for discussion, he said, is any attempt by the state to force an increase in property taxes to pay for building enactments and enforcement.
Support for statewide codes has long come from the Home Builders Association of Mississippi, according to Marty Milstead, executive VP of the approximate 1,500-member trade group.
"We fully support that," he said, attributing a shift in thinking on the issue among many members to the devastation of hurricane Katrina seven years ago.
He acknowledged the opposition from some cities and counties and conceded that many localities do not have enough building activity to justify having a building inspection department. But ways should be found to have codes and enforce them, even if done by localities pooling resources.
"There are different ways to address that," he said. "Everybody deserves to have their houses built to some minimum standards."
Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney also supports building codes, but spokeswoman Donna Cromeans said she is unsure whether he has pushed for statewide building codes in recent legislative sessions.
Chaney commissioned a study issued by risk modeling consultants Air Worldwide in February 2010 that concluded building codes are "extremely important to effective mitigation programs because they determine the way that new construction is done, or at least is supposed to be done."
The 127-page report titled "Comprehensive Hurricane Damage Mitigation Program Cost and Benefit Study" determined that passage of strong statewide building codes for new construction is "the first prudent step" in enhancing regional building codes.
"The next step for counties and municipalities to agree to adopt at least the IBC (International Building Code) and IRC (International Residential Code) building codes based upon the risk presented within their borders, and to aggressively enforce these or even stronger building codes in overseeing builders of new homes or significantly renovating damaged structures."