Hurricane Katrina Forest Recovery

As we work together to tackle the historic challenge that Hurricane Katrina has presented to the forestry communities of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama, we hope that this blog will be a valuable resource and tool.

Thursday, March 23

Lawmakers Face Building Compromise

Lawmakers are negotiating how homes and businesses should be built in the wake of devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. A point of contention is whether to extend tougher standards statewide or limit them to coastal counties. By Monday, House and Senate negotiators must craft a compromise. Some Gulf Coast residents, however, already have started rebuilding homes and businesses the hurricane damaged.

Builder Ken Ladner and his crew have worked almost non-stop since January to rebuild Vrazel's Fine Food Restaurant across from what remains of the former Grand Casino in Gulfport. Gulfport and Biloxi require the 1997 Southern Building Code. The proposed law would require the newer 2003 International Building Code. "They can't make them retroactive," he said. "When we got the building permit, we were grandfathered in under existing building codes." The codes mandate standards for electrical work, plumbing, fire protection and other aspects of construction. Everything from the type of materials used to the distance between wall studs to roof construction is defined in the codes.

The plan may aid coastal residents rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina destroyed towns in August. Updated codes also are a requirement for homeowners to receive federal grants available in April. Ladner, president of KEL Construction Co. Inc., said more cities will pass the updated code as they prepare to rebuild. "It may take several years to get there," Sen. Mike Chaney, R-Vicksburg, said of a statewide mandate. He is a negotiator on House Bill 1406. "This is like putting sand on the tracks to get the train moving." Earlier this month, Hancock County adopted the International Building Code, which will take effect July 1. Bay St. Louis and Waveland both require the international code.

Harrison and Pearl River counties are considering the newer requirements. Adrain Lumpkin, Pearl River County administrator, said his county was on the way to passing the international code before Katrina hit. The county was approved for a $300,000 grant to hire inspectors and start a building code office. "Katrina will help us get there faster," he said. County, Picayune and Poplarville officials will meet March 28 to make sure all conform to the same building codes, Lumpkin said. Afterward, county supervisors will have to adopt the international code, he said.

Sen. Billy Hewes, R-Gulfport, said the codes impact more than the Coast. Updated requirements improve fire safety and are needed statewide, he said. By knowing the code, fire fighters can tell how long material will burn. "We're focusing on the storm aspect," said Hewes, a negotiator. "What we're not taking into account is the issue of fire safety." Aside from whether to require codes in other counties, another sticking point is establishing a council to adopt standards.

The council, a mixture of the construction industry and political appointees, would meet to update codes every three years. Chaney, a negotiator, said structures used for farming, hunting and socializing at the Neshoba County Fairgrounds will be exempt. Not all counties want the same code statewide.
Lowndes County uses the older Southern Building Code and is considering zoning, said Supervisor Leroy Brooks, who represents the western section. "I don't think the state Legislature needs to be mandating statewide building codes unless they're going to allow flexibility for each county," he said. "Counties are different."

Chaney said the codes vary statewide with houses built to fare better in hurricanes on the coast and earthquakes in the north. Tornado-resistant construction would help across Mississippi. The codes would increase construction costs from 1 percent to 4 percent, he said. That will be on top of the cost of materials during the rebuilding boom, Ladner said. "The requirements will call for stronger buildings," he said. "It's not a bad thing. But there are so many thousands of structures that were destroyed. A lot of people aren't going to be able to afford to rebuild, especially on the beach. It's all going to be commercial."

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