Chief Investigative Reporter

Jeremy Finley is the chief investigator for News4 Investigates. His reporting has resulted in criminal convictions, legislative hearings before the U.S. Congress, and the payout of more than a million dollars to scam victims.

Homes are being built without codes oversight or inspections in areas where tornadoes are found to be appearing on a more regular basis in Middle Tennessee, a News4 I-Team investigation found.

The investigation also found that the state isn’t requiring that homes be built to withstand the kind of wind speeds that experts believe can strike Tennessee homes.

"I think the people in these homes have a false sense of security,” said Richard Chesbro, a structural engineer who reviewed the I-Team’s findings.

The I-Team investigation began when on Nov 6, 2018, when Angie Walker was killed when her Christiana house flipped over as a tornado moved through.

A News4 I-Team investigation found that homes like Walkers should be withstanding lesser tornadoes but are not.

Knowing that EF2 tornado that struck their home was only strong enough to blow off a roof or uproot a tree, Angie’s widow, Scott Walker, couldn’t escape a nagging thought.

“I started questioning, what if something wasn't right about this house?” Walker said.

Walker is now suing the home’s builder claiming that it wasn’t anchored properly to the foundation.

County records show that Walker’s home was inspected and approved by the Rutherford County Codes Department.

The News4 I-Team then began investigating what wind speed strength that homes in Middle Tennessee must be built to.

The International Code Council makes recommendations nationwide for how homes should be built, including the wind speed that is expected to strike homes at some point.

The ICC relies on experts on wind speeds to determine what risk exists in each part of the country.

In 2018, the ICC deemed that homes in Tennessee should be built to withstand winds of 110 miles per hour.

The News4 I-team found that the state only requires that homes be built to withstand winds of up to 90 miles per hour, which is the ICC’s recommendation from 2009.

“I think they're behind the times in verifying that a house has been designed for wind speeds,” Chesbro said.

Baylie Scott, spokeswoman for the state fire marshal’s office, said officials with that agency are currently reviewing the latest recommendations by the ICC to determine if the construction guidelines in Tennessee should be updated.

"Are we behind, then, in what the experts are saying our homes should be built to?" asked the News4 I-Team.

“(The state fire marshal’s office) is in the process of reviewing (the ICC’s recommendations) to see which one best fits our state," Scott said.

The I-Team investigation found that 38 counties across Tennessee have opted out of requiring even the state’s minimum standards for codes.

It means that there are no codes department or any official inspection required for homes in those counties to make sure they can withstand wind speeds.

The I-Team compared where the counties are and a recent study that shows where tornadoes are appearing across the country.

Counties that have opted out of state minimum standards on building codes

Many of the counties opting out are in the western part of Middle Tennessee.

Tornadoes are appearing more frequently in western middle Tennessee

And the study of tornadic activity in Tennessee shows high winds are appearing most in the areas where the counties have opted out of building codes.

“When you hear that they have opted out of building codes, does that make you worry?” asked the News4 I-Team.

“I think it’s absurd,” said Chesbro.

Chris Jackson, a Lawrence County Commissioner, led efforts in his county to opt out of the state required building codes after talking to constituents.

"It came down to local control. Once you institute codes, there's a fear you would be creeping, they never get any more lenient,” Jackson said.

"If even a small-scale tornado went through your county, how do we know that the houses would be able to withstand that?” asked the News4 I-Team.

“That's a good question. That’s a question we're going to have to answer going forward because we have experience population growth," Jackson said.

After what he experienced with a home inspected by codes that couldn’t withstand high winds, Walker said he would worry about building a home in Tennessee in places that don’t even have a codes department.

“I think I’d be real nervous,” Walker said.

Copyright 2019 WSMV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

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