No Move To Tighten Building Codes As Hurricane Season Starts In Florida

Jun 1, 2019
Originally published on June 2, 2019 7:57 am

Anyone who was in Panama City, Fla., last year when Hurricane Michael hit has a story to tell. Christina Harding rode out the storm with her mother, daughter and two nephews. "It was crazy," she says. "We had to tie the door shut because Michael was trying to come into the house with us, which was not what we wanted. It was like bam, bam, bam, bam. Like somebody trying to get in, you know?"

When she stepped outside after the storm, Harding says, it looked like a bomb had gone off. Pointing across the road, one guy's house "was just completely caved in on the backside," she says. "We saw these trailers coming apart across the road."

Harding lost some fencing and a window from flying debris. But otherwise, her house was largely fine. She expected it would be because she helped build it with Habitat for Humanity and knew how strong it was.

Much of Lynn Haven, Fla., still shows signs of catastrophic damage from last year's Category 5 hurricane. Nearly eight months later, the region is still in the early stages of recovery.
William Widmer for NPR

Many others weren't as fortunate. Margo Anderson, the mayor of Lynn Haven, Fla., a small community next door to Panama City says her city had 254 houses "wiped off the earth." Anderson says some of old homes dating back to the city's founding came through the hurricane. But some of the more recent construction couldn't stand up to Michael's sustained high winds. She says some houses built in the "hurricane preventative times" with trusses and windows that weren't supposed to come out didn't fare very well.

On Florida's panhandle, communities are still struggling to recover from Hurricane Michael and many are uneasy about the beginning of another hurricane season. Michael was a category 5 hurricane with 160-mile-per-hour winds that shredded thousands of houses in Panama City and surrounding areas. It's an area that's long had some of Florida's weakest building codes.

After the last category 5 hurricane hit Florida, nearly 30 years ago, the state revamped its building code. This time, Leslie Chapman-Henderson, who heads the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, says there's been little movement in that direction. "After Hurricane Michael," she says, "one would expect that the policy direction would be toward adopting stronger codes. We have not seen that to be the case."

A bill was introduced earlier this year in Florida's legislature included a directive to strengthen the state's building code. It died in committee after two hearings.

Lynn Haven Mayor Margo Anderson stands near the water on the north side of town. Much of Lynn Haven sustained catastrophic damage in the hurricane last year.
William Widmer for NPR

A decade after Hurricane Andrew, Florida adopted a statewide construction code that established minimum wind speeds buildings would have to withstand. But until 2008, much of the panhandle, including Panama City was granted an exception to the code. Chapman-Henderson says that exception proved costly. "If we had not had that in place for seven years," she says, "the homes that just hit by Michael last year would have been so much stronger. But they weren't because of short-sighted policy."

Although that policy was eventually changed, wind speed standards along the panhandle are still lower than in many other parts of the state. One reason for that is that the region had never experienced a major hurricane — until Michael.

Habitat for Humanity homes under construction near downtown Panama City. The organization builds homes with thicker plywood on the roofs to make the structure more resistant to strong winds.
William Widmer for NPR

One builder on the panhandle that has always gone well beyond the minimum requirements of the construction code is Habitat for Humanity. The executive director of Habitat for Humanity in Bay County, Lance Rettig says the impetus for that comes from the group's insistence on building homes "habitat strong."

Habitat's construction manager in Bay County, Ross Potts, says in Hurricane Michael, "Our houses did really well in part due to our hipped roofs," referring to roofs that slope downward. "So there was nothing for the wind to grab and rip off. The steel on the roof was also key. Shingles were blowing off everywhere but our steel stayed in place."

Construction manager Ross Potts installs flooring in a Habitat for Humanity home near downtown Panama City. He says relatively simple construction techniques make their homes resistant to hurricane-force winds.
William Widmer for NPR

Habitat is currently building two new homes in Panama City. Potts says relatively simple construction techniques make their homes resistant to hurricane-force winds. "There's thicker plywood on the roof ... holding the steel on." Screws, not nails are used on the roof and to fasten windows to the walls. Habitat also uses more "go bolts" — long, threaded rods that connect the roof beams to the home's foundation.

Many of the homes in the Panama Country Club area of Lynn Haven still show evidence of the catastrophic damage caused by Michael.
William Widmer for NPR

It takes a bit more time, but doesn't cost that much more. Rettig says, "The difference is maybe $1,000. You know, it's twice as many nails, a little bit of an upgrade in wood and go bolts that are incrementally not that much of a difference." Using steel on the roof instead of shingles, he says, can add an additional $2,000-3,000 to the cost of a home.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Today is the first day of the Atlantic hurricane season. Many communities in Florida's Panhandle still struggle to recover from Hurricane Michael. Michael was a Category 5 hurricane with 160-mile-per-hour winds. It shredded thousands of houses in Panama City and surrounding communities. It's an area that's long had some of Florida's weakest building codes. From Panama City, NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Everyone who was in Panama City when Michael hit has a story to tell, including Christina Harding.

CHRISTINA HARDING: Then we had to tie the door shut because Michael was trying to come in the house with us, which was not what we wanted. And then it was just bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam.

ALLEN: After the storm, she stepped outside. She says it looked like a bomb had gone off.

HARDING: This guy right here across the road on the side street here - his house was just completely caved in on the backside. We saw these trailers coming apart across the road.

ALLEN: Harding lost some fencing and a window from flying debris, but otherwise, her house was largely OK. She expected it would be. She helped build it with Habitat for Humanity and knew how strong it was. Many others weren't as fortunate.

MARGO ANDERSON: We had 254 houses wiped off the earth in our city.

ALLEN: Margo Anderson is the mayor of Lynn Haven, a small community next door to Panama City. She says some of the old homes dating back to the city's founding came through the hurricane OK, but that wasn't the case with more recent construction.

ANDERSON: Some of the houses - as we drive around and you look - that were built in the hurricane-preventative times with the trusses that were supposed to work and the windows that weren't supposed to come out - you will see they didn't do as well.

ALLEN: Nearly 20 years ago, after Hurricane Andrew, Florida adopted a statewide construction code. That code established minimum wind speeds buildings would have to withstand. But until 2008, much of the Panhandle, including Panama City, was granted an exception to the code. Leslie Chapman-Henderson, who heads the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, says that code exception proved costly.

LESLIE CHAPMAN-HENDERSON: If we had not had that in place for seven years, the homes that were just hit by Michael last year would've been so much stronger. But they weren't because of shortsighted policy.

ALLEN: That policy changed eventually, but wind speed standards along the Panhandle are still lower than many other parts of the state. One reason for that is that the region had never experienced a major hurricane until Michael.

One builder on the Panhandle has always gone well beyond the minimum requirements of the construction code - Habitat for Humanity.

LANCE RETTIG: So these are two new homes that we're building.

ALLEN: Lance Rettig is the executive director of Habitat for Humanity in Bay County. He says the impetus for going beyond required construction codes comes from the group's insistence on building homes habitat strong.

Habitat's construction manager in Bay County is Ross Potts.

ROSS POTTS: Our houses did really well, in part due to our hip roofs. So there was nothing for the wind to grab and rip off. The steel on the roof that - also key.

ALLEN: And there are lots of other elements making these homes hurricane-resistant - thicker plywood; screws, not nails - one every six inches, fastening windows to the walls; more go-bolts, long, threaded rods that connect the roof beams to the home's foundation; and screws, not nails, on the roof. It takes a bit more time, Rettig says, but doesn't cost that much more.

RETTIG: The difference is maybe a thousand dollars. You know, it's twice as many nails, a little bit of an upgrade in wood and go-bolts that are incrementally not that much of a difference.

ALLEN: After the last Category 5 hurricane hit Florida nearly 30 years ago, the state revamped its building code. This time, Leslie Chapman-Henderson says, there's been little movement in that direction.

CHAPMAN-HENDERSON: After Hurricane Michael, one would expect that the policy direction would be toward adopting stronger codes. We have not seen that to be the case.

ALLEN: A bill introduced earlier this year in Florida's Legislature included a directive to strengthen the state's building code. It died in committee after two hearings. Greg Allen, NPR News, Panama City, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.