USA TODAY US Edition

As mem­o­ries fade, so do Fla. build­ing codes

Law makes it easier to change stan­dards built up af­ter An­drew

- Alan Gomez @alan­gomez U.S. News · Disasters · Natural Disasters · Hurricanes · Insurance · Society · Florida · Republican Party (United States) · Richard Lynn Scott · Federal Emergency Management Agency · Tallahassee · Hurricane · Miami · East Coast · Mexico · Homestead · National Hurricane Center · United States of America · Virginia · Allstate · Council · Internationaler Strafgerichtshof · US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration · Craig Fugate · Crestview, FL · Miami-Dade County

Be­fore Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina, be­fore Su­per­storm Sandy, there was Hur­ri­cane An­drew.

The in­tense Cat­e­gory 5 hur­ri­cane, a com­pact buz­z­saw that ripped the roofs off thou­sands of South Florida homes 25 years ago, was so cat­a­strophic that it led to sweep­ing changes in the in­sur­ance in­dus­try and dis­as­ter re­sponse. Florid­i­ans — shocked by acres of flat­tened houses — rewrote the state’s build­ing codes, mak­ing them the tough­est in the na­tion.

As mem­o­ries of the hor­ren­dous de­struc­tion of Aug. 24, 1992, grow dim, the lessons learned from An­drew may be fad­ing, too. The build­ing codes once hailed as the gold stan­dard other states should em­u­late are un­der as­sault.

At the core of that dis­pute is a sim­ple cal­cu­la­tion: The tougher the build­ing code, the more it costs to build a home.

Florida’s codes dic­tate con­struc­tion meth­ods, re­quire wind test­ing and man­date ex- ten­sive train­ing and over­sight for in­spec­tors. Those stan­dards, home builders ar­gue, can add un­nec­es­sary costs that don’t amount to a hur­ri­cane-proof home. In­sur­ers and home­own­ers’ as­so­ci­a­tions say the tough codes save money in the long run.

This year, the Repub­li­can-led Leg­is­la­ture and GOP Gov. Rick Scott passed a law that un­teth­ers Florida’s code from in­ter­na­tional stan­dards and re­quires fewer votes for the Florida Build­ing Com­mis­sion to make changes to the build­ing codes.

Op­po­nents said it opened the door for the com­mis­sion, dom­i­nated by builders and con­trac­tors, to weaken the codes.

Craig Fu­gate, the for­mer head of the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency, which re­sponds to dis­as­ters, said Florida’s lat­est move sick­ened him.

“I don’t think builders are in­her­ently evil peo­ple, but you’ve got to look at what their busi­ness model is,” said Fu­gate, who led Florida’s emer­gency man­age­ment agency be­fore head­ing FEMA. “The quicker they get to sell a home with the least amount of cost and the least time de­lays in­creases the money they make.”

Repub­li­can lead­ers and the state’s home builders say such con­cerns are overblown. Jeremy Stewart, a Crestview, Fla., de­vel­oper and pres­i­dent of the Florida Home Builders As­so­ci­a­tion, noted that the bill passed in Tal­la­has­see did not change a sin­gle build­ing code. In­stead, he said, it sim­ply mod­ern­ized the process for up­dat­ing the code.

There’s no rea­son, he said, to think devel­op­ers will use the process to weaken the state’s

build­ing codes, and he bris­tled at the sug­ges­tion that builders sim­ply seek to cut costs.

A BUILD­ING BOOM

For Florida’s builders and build­ing of­fi­cials, life could be de­fined as “be­fore An­drew” and “af­ter An­drew.”

The Florida penin­sula juts straight into the trop­i­cal storm­prone area of the At­lantic known as “hur­ri­cane al­ley.” Be­fore An­drew, South Florida hadn’t suf­fered a di­rect strike from a ma­jor hur­ri­cane since Hur­ri­cane King in 1950, said Michael Goolsby, di­rec­tor of build­ing code ad­min­is­tra­tion for Mi­ami-Dade County.

Year af­ter year, hur­ri­canes swept by, ei­ther slip­ping up the East Coast or fall­ing apart in the Gulf of Mex­ico. “That’s more than

40 years,” Goolsby said. “That brings about a cer­tain level of com­pla­cency.”

Con­struc­tion boomed, and the state’s pop­u­la­tion swelled. To curb hap­haz­ard home build­ing, lo­cal gov­ern­ments cre­ated build­ing codes, but they var­ied from county to county.

Ri­cardo Al­varez, a for­mer state and fed­eral build­ing in­spec­tor, said con­trac­tors cut cor­ners as the storm drought dragged on. In­stead of us­ing stur­dier ply­wood un­der roofs, they used a cheaper, flim­sier ver­sion of par­ti­cle board. In­stead of us­ing roof­ing nails, they used sta­ples.

Then, An­drew hit.

Its 145-mph winds tore apart the work­ing-class sub­urb of Home­stead, re­duc­ing en­tire city blocks to rub­ble. De­bris torn from roofs or lifted from the ground turned into deadly pro­jec­tiles, smash­ing win­dows and im­pal­ing peo­ple.

The num­bers were stag­ger­ing:

25,524 homes de­stroyed, 101,241 dam­aged and more than 40 peo­ple killed, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Hur­ri­cane Cen­ter.

All told, An­drew led to $24.5 bil­lion in in­sured losses, the costli­est dis­as­ter in U.S. his­tory at the time. Only Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina in

2005 and the ter­ror­ist at­tacks of Sept. 11, 2001, cost more, ac­cord­ing to the In­sur­ance In­for­ma­tion In­sti­tute. An­drew’s costs were so high that 11 in­sur­ance com­pa­nies went bank­rupt.

An­drew forced Florida lead­ers to ex­am­ine dis­as­ter re­sponse, in­sur­ance laws and evac­u­a­tion pro­ce­dures. The Leg­is­la­ture cre­ated a state catas­tro­phe fund, which stands at $17.6 bil­lion, to help cover losses from hur­ri­canes.

Law­mak­ers took the hard­est look at the build­ing codes. Why, they won­dered, did thou­sands of roofs lift from their houses?

In­ves­ti­ga­tors founds dozens of flaws but ze­roed in on gables, the tri­an­gu­lar ar­eas of a house that sit on top of a ma­sonry wall and un­der an arched roof. Gables could be made from wood at the time, which in­ves­ti­ga­tors re­al­ized cre­ated a glar­ing weak­ness eas­ily ex­ploited by hur­ri­cane-force winds. When wa­ter and wind got through the gable, the wind could lift up the en­tire roof or whip through the house, blow­ing out win­dows and doors.

Over the next decade, state lead­ers stud­ied con­struc­tion stan­dards, ne­go­ti­ated with home builders and fi­nally un­veiled a statewide, mandatory build­ing code that took ef­fect in 2002.

The lessons of An­drew drove many of the build­ing code changes. In­spec­tors had to ap­prove build­ing plans and sign off on all phases of con­struc­tion. The en­tire “build­ing en­ve­lope” of a home — every win­dow, door, sky­light or any point that could let in wind — had to un­dergo test­ing and ap­proval.

The first ma­jor test of Florida’s new stan­dards came in 2004. Four hur­ri­canes — Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne — wal­loped the state in one hur­ri­cane sea­son. The newer homes, built un­der the tough code, sur­vived.

A re­port from FEMA found that homes built af­ter the codes were put into place per­formed bet­ter than the older stock. A re­port from the In­sur­ance In­sti­tute for Busi­ness and Home Safety found own­ers of post-An­drew homes filed 60% fewer in­sur­ance claims, and the sever­ity of those claims was 42% lower.

“The codes proved them­selves out beau­ti­fully,” said Julie Rochman, CEO and pres­i­dent of the in­sti­tute.

FLORIDA SCALES BACK

Rather than em­brace the suc­cess of the new codes, the state started walk­ing them back.

The Florida Build­ing Com­mis­sion — a 25-mem­ber board ap­pointed by the gov­er­nor that in­cludes builders, en­gi­neers and in­spec­tors — an­a­lyzed data from the four storms and de­cided to re­cal­i­brate how much wind a home would need to with­stand.

Dif­fer­ent ar­eas of the state re­ceive dif­fer­ent winds on av­er­age. The lower the wind, the lower the build­ing re­quire­ments. Af­ter the 2004 sea­son, state of­fi­cials re­drew the maps. The state in­creased the wind loads in one area — South Florida — but re­duced them by 20% in much of the rest of the state. Jack­sonville, largely spared by the four hur­ri­canes, saw its wind loads re­duced as much as 35%.

In 2015, the in­sur­ance in­sti­tute that had praised Florida’s per­for­mance in 2004 down­graded the state’s code from the top spot to sec­ond place, be­hind Vir­ginia.

Dur­ing the leg­isla­tive ses­sion this year, leg­is­la­tors pushed for even big­ger changes.

One pro­posal called for state of­fi­cials to freeze the code as it stands, with only oc­ca­sional up­dates. An­other pro­posal called for a six-year cy­cle of up­dates in­stead of three.

Les­lie Chap­man-Hen­der­son said she re­mem­bers An­drew vividly. She man­aged An­drew-re­lated in­sur­ance claims for All­state. The Leg­is­la­ture’s di­rec­tion alarmed her.

“We were watch­ing these bills fly out of com­mit­tees unan­i­mously, and we’re think­ing, ‘This is not good,’ ” said Chap­manHen­der­son, who is pres­i­dent of the Fed­eral Al­liance for Safe Homes.

The ne­go­ti­a­tions ended with a com­pro­mise. Florida’s build­ing codes would still be up­dated every three years, but they would no longer adopt the In­ter­na­tional Code Coun­cil reg­u­la­tions. In­stead, Florida would keep its cur­rent code and pick and choose which parts of the ICC rules to adopt.

The law re­duced the num­ber of votes re­quired for the state’s build­ing com­mis­sion to change the build­ing codes.

A code change re­quires twothirds of the board to sup­port the change rather than 75%. That wor­ries Fu­gate, the for­mer FEMA di­rec­tor, who said the com­mis­sion is stacked in fa­vor of builders and con­trac­tors, who ac­count for 10 mem­bers of the 25per­son board.

Kerri Wy­land, a spokes­woman for Gov. Scott, said the law re­duces “bur­den­some reg­u­la­tions while main­tain­ing Florida’s gold stan­dard of safety and in­no­va­tion.”

The 2017 hur­ri­cane sea­son will end Nov. 30, and the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion pre­dicted as many as 19 named storms could de­velop in the wa­ters around the USA. As al­ways, Florida is in the crosshairs. That has Chap­man-Hen­der­son wor­ried.

“We are still in a state of shock that the most hur­ri­cane-prone state in the coun­try would re­treat from its world-class build­ing code sys­tem,” she said. “Florida was the good child. Now they’re on the path that led to the fail­ures of Hur­ri­cane An­drew.”

 ?? RAY FAIRALL, AP ?? Hur­ri­cane An­drew ripped the roofs off thou­sands of Florida homes in 1992.
RAY FAIRALL, AP Hur­ri­cane An­drew ripped the roofs off thou­sands of Florida homes in 1992.
 ?? 1992 PHOTO BY LYNN SLADKY, AP ?? Joan Wal­lach, left, and her daugh­ter leave their home in Home­stead, Fla.
1992 PHOTO BY LYNN SLADKY, AP Joan Wal­lach, left, and her daugh­ter leave their home in Home­stead, Fla.
 ?? ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Hur­ri­cane An­drew bar­reled into the coast of South Florida on Aug. 24, 1992, pack­ing soak­ing rain and de­struc­tive tor­na­does.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Hur­ri­cane An­drew bar­reled into the coast of South Florida on Aug. 24, 1992, pack­ing soak­ing rain and de­struc­tive tor­na­does.

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