Maine homes vulnerable to hurricane damage, report says

Posted Jan. 09, 2012, at 6:23 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Maine ranks No. 12 out of 18 “hurricane-prone” eastern states in terms of home construction safety standards, according to a group that researches disaster risks for insurers.

The Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety gave Maine a score of 64 out of 100, with point totals determined by statewide building code adoption, contractor training and licensing requirements for construction trades.

“We think there’s a lot of room for improvement, and that was the purpose of the report,” said Wanda Edwards, a researcher for the institute. “The hurricane coast is particularly vulnerable, and we would like to see 100 scored by each of the states in the area.”

The questionnaire used in the report to gauge effectiveness of state construction codes largely focuses on whether those codes ensure homes can withstand high winds.

However, state emergency officials said Monday that rules on the books here are better oriented to protect homes from flooding, which is a much greater storm threat to Mainers than high winds. They added that Maine faces less of a risk of seeing major hurricanes than many of the other states rated in the study.

The states ranked highest in the study are Florida and Virginia, with scores of 95, and Mississippi is placed as the worst of the 18 with a score of 4.

In its announcement of the new study, the organization noted that eight of the 10 most expensive natural disasters in United States history have been hurricanes — including six since 2000. The institute calls for additional building code strength in coastal states, with oceanfront counties being home to about 15 percent of the U.S. population, despite representing only 3 percent of the land mass.

“Architectural styles increasingly are incorporating design elements and building materials that are not well-suited to hurricane-force winds,” the report reads. “Building codes are especially important in providing protection for newer residents who may be unfamiliar with local weather conditions and, therefore, lack an appreciation for ensuring that a builder takes hurricane loss prevention into account.”

The study judges 18 coastal states, including those on the Gulf of Mexico, by awarding points for adoption and implementation of building code guidelines meant to ensure structure stability and wind resistance, code enforcement officer training opportunities and contractor licensing requirements.

Maine scored a 22 out of a possible 25 for its array of training courses for municipal code officials, which Maine State Planning Office training coordinator Brianne Hasty said were launched in earnest late in 2010.

The state was given just 33 points out of 50 for its statewide building codes, however, and only 9 out of 25 for requirements placed on contractors. Maine was acknowledged for demanding electricians and plumbers obtain licenses but penalized for not extending licensing requirements to other contractors.

Also, while Maine was credited with adoption of the 2009 International Residential Code, a widely accepted template for building codes, it was docked points for nonenforcement in towns with populations smaller than 4,000 people — a caveat the institute said lets a third of the state’s residents off the hook.

When contacted Monday, state officials said their top concern during hurricanes is often flooding and suggested the report — which focuses much of its codes research on wind resistance standards — doesn’t give Maine enough credit for the strength of its floodplain guidelines.

“Our hurricane risk is not zero,” said Lynette Miller, spokeswoman for the Maine Emergency Management Agency. “We do think that the top level storm we would see would be a Category 3 [with winds between 111 and 130 mph], and to the best of our knowledge we haven’t seen that here. We of course get not just the typical winds and surge, but hurricanes bring a lot of rain and inland flooding. It’s an effect that people don’t think of immediately.”

Joseph Young of the Maine Floodplain Management Program said the state has adopted Federal Emergency Management Agency floodplain regulations, although he acknowledged that some of the inland and more rural areas of the state are due for flood map updates.

“We have adopted those minimum [FEMA] guidelines, and as a state, we’ve adopted a higher freeboard, which requires construction of properties to be built one foot above the base flood elevation,” Young said. “Generally speaking, North Carolina, Florida, the Gulf — they get hit much more frequently and more intensely [by hurricanes] than we do up here.”

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