Michael Shows Need for Stricter Building Codes in Florida's Panhandle
MEXICO BEACH, FLORIDA – October 18, 2018
Hurricane Michael “wiped out” Mexico Beach, Florida last week after touching down as a Category 4 storm. Packing 155 mph winds, the storm showed no mercy to the beachfront city, destroying homes and businesses.
However, there were those few houses that not only withstood the fury of the deadly storm, but even suffered only minimal damage. The same can’t be said for most, though. The storm surge washed houses on the beach off their foundations to the other side of the coastal road. Even more damaging were the high winds that took roofs off.
The secret of this “miracle” house is that while some companies skimp on construction, while others take local weather into account when building. Storms are not rare in Florida, so these owners made their home a special project, designed to adequately resist hurricanes.
After Hurricane Michael wreaked havoc on Florida’s small cities, the authorities have recognized the problems of construction standards.
One reason for the extreme destruction in the communities on the Panhandle is that there is old, substandard construction that predates the present building code, according to Craig Fugate, the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a longtime emergency management official in Florida. "That's what I call the old Florida," he says. "It's not a bunch of high-rises. It's not a lot of new construction. This is multigenerational Florida families. Many of them were descendants of folks who fished the areas."
After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Florida took a serious look at its building codes. In South Florida, Miami-Dade and Broward counties adopted strict standards, requiring storm shutters and reinforced concrete block construction for all new buildings. It was all aimed at making structures able to withstand winds up to 175 mph.
When Florida revised its statewide building code, officials decided not to require South Florida's 175 mph wind-speed standard elsewhere in the state, says structural engineer John Pistorino. "Unfortunately, because it is based on probability of storms in the past and all of that," Pistorino, who helped develop the standards, says, "it sort of goes down as you go further north in Florida." Historically, there have been fewer intense hurricanes on the Panhandle than elsewhere in the state.
In some communities on the Florida Panhandle, new construction needs to only withstand wind speeds of 130 mph or less — far below the 155 mph winds seen during Hurricane Michael. In the aftermath of the storm, as local, state and federal officials assess the damage, a consensus is emerging that building codes along Florida's Panhandle need to be tougher. Florida Gov. Rick Scott and FEMA chief Brock Long both said as much last week after visiting Mexico Beach.
David Prevatt, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Florida, was part of a team that spent the weekend on the Panhandle gathering data on Michael's impact there. "What we saw there was damage to pretty much all types of construction, all types of materials and all types of housing," he says. "What was not damaged were houses that were well-engineered."
Florida's Building Commission is in the process of revising the state code and is awaiting recommendations from the University of Florida team led by Prevatt. But Prevatt says understanding how to build resilient structures is just the first step. "We know what can be done. It has been proven. The research is there." He says along the Panhandle, the key question is "whether a community is willing to adopt it or not."
Realtors, homebuilders, the insurance industry, even affordable housing advocates will all have a voice as Florida considers how to prepare for the next storm like Hurricane Michael. At least 19 people have died as a result of the storm, including 3 in North Carolina, 9 in Florida, 6 in Virginia, and 1 in Georgia, according to CNN. Among the 19, there have been 2 confirmed deaths in Mexico Beach, according to CNN.