Friday, April 21, 2006

Lucky or good? Continued ...

by Barry Pump, DI columnist

My column this week was inspired by my neighborhood in the upper reaches of Washington Street and Iowa Avenue, the section of town that sustained the most damage in last week's tornado. My apartment building is well-kept and relatively new for the area, two things I credit for surviving the storm so well. I sought to explain why my apartment only had minor damage but some just a few yards away lost roofs and walls, while trying to bring about the change necessary so that more apartments can be as safe as mine was.

Dave Bowman, a manager at the International Code Council, the organization that is in charge of almost all the building codes in the United States, can put the F2 tornado Iowa City experienced last week into some pretty harsh perspective - especially when he deals mainly in hurricanes.

First, tornadoes are isolated events. You don't know when, where, or how badly they're going to hit, until they're right on top of you. Some areas, such as Oklahoma and Kansas, may get more than Iowa, but some years, they may not. It's an unpredictable storm, unlike hurricanes, which require profoundly different planning.

Second, F2 tornadoes and the 150 mph winds they can bring are small by comparison with hurricanes. It's a rare tornado, indeed, that can produce maximum winds faster than 200 mph. And it's a far cry from the maximum sustained winds over 200 mph that areas devastated by hurricanes endure for hours.

Third, tornadoes are statistically improbable, and that makes them harder to plan for. Cities cannot go around over-constructing their buildings without serious financial burdens on builders. The real-estate market would plummet if houses were so well-built as to be prohibitively expensive, especially when the threat is minimal.

The isolation of the event and the small probabilities of a severe tornado hitting a town such as Iowa City has led most experts, such as Bowman, to focus on how cities can be prepared for such catastrophes when they happen, rather than making buildings better prepared to withstand a hit.

"The best thing that Midwestern cities can do is to increase warning systems and preparedness systems and focus on protecting lives," he said from his Chicago office. "You accept whatever damage is going to be from a tornado, as sad as it is. In the Midwest, where you put the emphasis is the safety of the individuals from the accepted damage to the building.

"I know that's hard to swallow."

It's particularly hard for those who sustained considerable damage in last week's storms. But Bowman was quick to point out that no one was killed in the storms in Iowa City, and he credited Iowa City's preparedness and the current building code for that.

Doug Boothroy, Iowa City's director of Housing and Inspection Services, agreed that buildings erected under current standards fared much better than those which weren't.

"[Those most damaged] were older houses that wouldn't meet our standards today, in terms of structure itself," he told me in an interview this week. "The newer buildings in that same path fared pretty well. Generally speaking, they came through that pretty successfully."

We can admit that structural damage in the event of a direct hit is unavoidable, but what can the city do to make older structures safer?

The key thing is to not look exclusively at new construction when revising the building code. The city already does maintenance and upkeep check-ups on dwellings, every two years, but the tornado shows that, more than making sure older buildings maintain the bare minimum standards, the inspections should include regular checks for structural integrity in the event of a major storm so that the damage the city's facing now is not repeated. The building codes should then be made retroactive to ensure basic structural stability that is required in today's buildings.

Getting landlords and other real-estate owners to submit to stronger checks and possible investments in light of retroactive building codes is a tough sell. That's why it's absolutely essential that the City Council be supported by the student community and the university's Tenant-Landlord Association when the councilors make the tough decision to strengthen regulations.

The bottom line is that students shouldn't be put at risk because landlords don't ensure the safety of the older buildings they rent out. The Board of Appeals, which is in charge of the code and makes recommendations to the council, should recognize the students' interests when it revises the building code, not just the interests of developers.

Hopefully, the tornado has created an occasion for a stronger partnership between students and city officials to build a safer Iowa City.

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