“We just knew, all of us were dead,” Mexico Beach resident says
The devastation wrought by Hurricane Michael may have exposed a weak spot in Florida’s lauded statewide building code, among the strongest anywhere when it comes to windstorms: Across much of the Panhandle, the rules may not be tough enough.
That’s because the code’s requirements for wind resistance vary widely by location. And while they’re most rigorous in famously hurricane-prone South Florida, they taper down the farther north you move along the peninsula. In most of the Panhandle, the code requirements are significantly less stringent.
To illustrate the differences: Under the statewide code, most new structures in Miami-Dade County, including homes and office buildings, must be designed to withstand winds around 175 miles an hour, said John Pistorino, a veteran Miami structural engineer who helped write the building rules.
Along the stretch of the Panhandle hit hardest by Michael — including Mexico Beach, Apalachicola and Panama City — the design standard drops to as low as 120 miles an hour before rising gradually to 150 mph around Pensacola at the state’s far western edge.
Michael came ashore as a strong Category 4 storm, with sustained winds of 155 mph. That means that even the newest structures built to the latest applicable standards for wind resistance were a poor match for Michael’s intensity. Even small-seeming differences in wind speed can make a big difference in how buildings fare in a hurricane.
Why the mismatch? The code requirements are based on a combination of storm history and the likelihood of future hurricanes striking a particular area. The Panhandle has seen few big storms since scientists began tracking hurricanes in the 1800s; Michael, in fact, is the first known Category 4 hurricane to strike the region.
And so, the thinking of engineers and scientists was, the Panhandle did not need the same kind of strict standards for roof construction and wind-resistant shutters, windows or doors as the rest of the state. Local politicians wielded that history for years to successfully water down or stave off the local application of stricter windstorm codes.
Now, experts say, Michael may have upended those calculations.
“The assumption was, you don’t really have powerful hurricanes hitting the Panhandle,” said Craig Fugate, a former emergency management chief for the state and former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Michael just threw all that in their face.”
Much of the most dramatic damage from Michael, including the catastrophic destruction in the town of Mexico Beach, was in part due to massive surge pushed ashore from the Gulf of Mexico. Many older beach homes and apartment and commercial buildings sit at ground level and do not meet current elevation standards. That raises questions about how, or even whether, they can be rebuilt.
But wind wreaked havoc as well, tearing off roofs and blowing homes and buildings apart as the storm swept inland for miles through Panama City and other developed areas.
The problem was not solely the gap between Michael’s potency and current building rules. Many, if not most, of the area’s homes and buildings are older structures that don’t meet even the area’s current wind standards. That’s because they were constructed before the tougher windstorm requirements of the statewide building code began applying fully in the area in 2007.
That statewide code, developed to boost the storm resistance of residential and commercial construction across Florida after Hurricane Andrew devastated South Miami-Dade in 1992, went into effect in 2002. It incorporated the toughened post-Andrew South Florida Building Code, allowing Broward and Miami-Dade counties to retain their demanding windstorm rules as a “high-velocity” wind zone. But the Legislature declined to impose the same level of regulation across the state, opting instead for a tiered approach, Pistorino said.
“These are political effects,” Pistorino said. “To justify not extending it across the state, they said it would be too costly. ‘Well, we don’t have those kinds of hurricanes you have in Miami-Dade and Broward.’ “
The code was developed by the Florida Building Commission, a panel of appointed experts and industry representatives formed to oversee the new regulations. The state group must balance the higher construction costs of stricter building codes against the affordability of homes and apartments to Florida residents. The American Society of Civil Engineers, meanwhile, develops guidelines for construction that are incorporated into the code, which is updated every three years.
The ASCE uses historical data and probability calculations for a 50-year storm strike, laying out the minimum wind speeds that buildings must be designed to withstand in different areas of the state. Local governments then approve a wind-speed baseline at or above the ASCE minimums for their jurisdiction, Pistorino said.
Fugate said powerful storms should have been factored in for the Panhandle because they had one major storm in the late 1800s. But this was viewed as an outlier. Still, Pistorino said, when the statewide code was instituted, the ASCE calculated what he described as some “big probabilities” of potent windstorms for the Panhandle.
But then-state Sen. Charles Clary, an architect who didn’t believe severe winds would push very far inland, persuaded the Legislature to exempt new construction along all of the Panhandle from having storm shutters or impact windows as mandated in the new statewide code. The only areas where the new rules were mandatory was within one mile from the coast, including Mexico Beach.
Then, in 2004, Category 3 Hurricane Ivan came roaring ashore in the Panhandle as a blaring wake-up call. Winds near 130 mph and a storm surge as high as 20 feet brought widespread damage across seven counties, with more than 300 buildings destroyed or severely damaged. Three years later, the Legislature lifted the exemption and the statewide code took full effect across all of the Panhandle.
But before it did, lots of buildings with substandard construction were put up, said William Merrill, vice president of engineering for Rebuild Northwest Florida, a nonprofit that retrofits Pensacola-area homes for hurricanes.
“There was some really flimsy construction in the ‘80s and late ‘90s,” Merrill said. “You could break into these houses with a pocket knife.”
Garrett Walton, Rebuild Northwest Florida’s CEO, said older, pre-World War II houses in the Panhandle actually tend to be better built than the houses that went up in the decades before the new building code.
“At first, houses were built strong and sturdy out of old, hard pine. But as home construction evolved, all the sudden we’re getting to plywood and using staples to attach roof decks. Nobody knew any better,” Walton said. “History has shown us that wasn’t a good thing to do.”
Elected leaders now say that exempting so much of the Panhandle from the stronger code was a mistake.
“In retrospect, [the exemption] was not a good decision,” said state Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Pensacola, who lost his Gulf Breeze home to a 17-foot wall of water during Ivan.
Since the statewide code went into effect across the entire Panhandle, officials say, the quality of construction has been upped considerably. New homes must have storm windows or shutters and roofs with strong anchors. Homes and buildings undergoing substantial rehab jobs must also meet the current statewide windstorm code.
In newer coastal communities, like St. George Island, homes meet current state elevation requirements based on federal flood-zone maps to protect them from surge, said Alan Pierce, a former Franklin County administrator who has lived in Apalachicola for 30 years.
“Clearly, the houses built after the new building codes are much sturdier for windstorm,” Walton said.
The problem is, not a whole lot has been built under the new codes because of a years-long economic slowdown in the area, dubbed Florida’s Forgotten Coast.
In Mexico Beach, some homes constructed under the stronger building rules instituted in 2002 were nonetheless destroyed by high winds, storm surge and flying debris. But residents say newer homes generally fared much better than older ones, many built between the 1940s and 1960s.
Longtime Mexico Beach resident Debbie Alley, 60, had her home built in 2003 using the updated building code. The home featured wooden walls with vinyl siding and was constructed by Jubilee Builders, of Dothan, Alabama. She said it appeared to survive intact, although it had some debris damage.
“Everything that stood up is brand-new or built in the last few years. The difference is the new construction,” Alley said.
Contractor Chris Hester, a part-time Mexico Beach resident, said he was helping build a new home in town just before the storm. The frame was already up, with windows and doors installed, when Hurricane Michael made landfall. The structure was not toppled.
“We’ve got long bolts, going down through the top plate, down through the floor, down through the beams, into the concrete pilings,” Hester said. “That’s the only thing that saved that house.”
He added, however: “Some still could not withstand this, even though they were built to code. It was so strong. I don’t know if we’re going to have to go back and re-evaluate the existing codes again. But how many times in your life do you see a storm like this?”
Experts say comparing how new homes and buildings and older structures fared will help determine whether current rules are adequate, or should be further strengthened.
“A storm like this will bring a lot of attention to the Florida building code,” Pistorino said, noting that Michael and Hurricane Florence, which struck North Carolina last month, have upped the ante. “I think what will happen is they will revisit this with Florence and Michael, on the Gulf Coast especially.”
Gov. Rick Scott, touring Mexico Beach on Friday, suggested authorities may re-examine the building code.
“After every event, you always go back and look what you can do better. After Andrew, the codes changed dramatically in our state,” Scott said. “Every time something like this happens, you have to say to yourself, ‘Is there something we can do better?’ ”
Then there is the question of how to rebuild, or whether to rebuild at all on vulnerable beach fronts.
Fugate, the former FEMA administrator, said many affected Panhandle residents are likely uninsured or under-insured. Many families will have to decide if they can afford to rebuild and whether it’s worth it. Homes with major damage will have to be rebuilt to current standards, and coastal homes will need to be elevated to FEMA requirements, he said.
“That’s going to be a battle that will be fought out home by home,” Fugate said. “There’s going to be places and homes that you ask, why are we building something that’s going to be wiped out again?
“I think for Florida, our long-term fiscal health, we either invest on the front end or hope the government bails us out,” he said. “Do we hope we don’t get more storms like Michael or do we build for it and bounce back? I just don’t know how long this nation is going to keep bailing Florida out of hurricanes.”
On Friday, FEMA administrator Brock Long said that his agency can’t continue picking up the ever-growing bill for hurricane relief and called for beefed-up construction codes.
“We have to build correctly. Building codes, resiliency and pre-disaster mitigation is the answer,” Long said. “If we’re going to rebuild, we must do it right.
“We have to build to a higher standard. We must stop this vicious cycle of destruction and learn this storm-surge lesson.”