Hurricane resilience and building codes should be important discussion
March 4th, 2019
Hurricane Michael put the lesson front and center.
Mexico Beach lay in ruins, destroyed by 155 mph winds — roofs ripped off, walls collapsed, windows shattered. Homes that withstood the wind were gutted by storm surge. The photo was a panorama of rubble, except for that one house.
The Sand Palace, a two-story beachfront home built last year, stands almost untouched by the storm. Why? Planning, resilient design and strong construction standards. The owners realized that the existing building code, which requires homes to withstand 120 mph wind, is really the minimum. The Sand Palace owners wanted to be sure their new home would survive a powerful storm.
The Sand Palace is constructed to withstand 250 mph winds and has 40-foot pilings to keep the house in place during storm surge. They estimate they invested 20 percent more in resilient building materials for their home and you can see the result. The home survived almost intact.
The picture of the Sand Palace standing alone in the rubble is striking, but it wasn’t the only home that survived. Other homes built “beyond code” fared extremely well, including several Habitat for Humanity homes and many manufactured homes. They were intact because they took advantage of low-cost measures like hurricane ties and windstorm plywood.
While Mexico Beach provides a great example of how we can build with resiliency in mind, we need to ask if we should even develop or rebuild in some hard-hit areas.
Cape San Blas, a 20-mile-long finger of land that juts into the Gulf, was completely reshaped in the few short hours of Michael’s landfall. In fact, there is no longer a “cape,” but rather, a series of islands cut off from the mainland.
Homes that still stand are severely damaged, many now uninsurable. Much of the two-lane road washed away. In theory, the area could be rebuilt and infrastructure replaced, but is that the best decision?
Similar communities along our coast got a dose of reality from Hurricane Michael. Our inclination is to make everything as it was before, but as the cost reaches into the billions, lawmakers and residents have to decide whether the cost to rebuild and the risk of future loss is acceptable. And what price do we put on the loss of life and belongings? By contrast, there are tangible benefits from preserving barrier islands.
Florida continues to attract thousands of new residents. We need to ensure those people are relocating to areas that are safe, with homes built not just to the minimums required by the Florida Building Code but built to survive with resilient construction materials and techniques. That means more stringent requirements for those building on the coast. It may also mean some coastline is not suitable for development and should be preserved as parks or wildlife habitat.
For the safety of Florida’s residents, and in our state’s financial best interest, the Florida Legislature should make resiliency and the protection of vulnerable lands a priority this session.
Bill Newton is deputy director of Florida Consumer Action Network, a nonprofit citizen group that advocates for consumers on insurance, health care, transportation and finance.