Construction Lessons From Hurricane Michael

The lessons learned from Hurricane Michael should have been learned 26 years ago. First, let's start with an excerpt from The Miami Herald followed by my take on it. Florida building code left Panhandle vulnerable to big storms.

Excerpt: 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 infamously 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.

Bottom Line: Starting on Thursday, I began a project of attempting to determine the average age of construction in Mexico Beach, Michael’s ground zero. Knowing that current building codes do provide protection to winds even stronger than Michael brought to the panhandle and seeing the line of devastation that looked all too similar to Andrew’s. I started to aggregate info about home construction in the area. 

By midday Friday, I was able to estimate that the average age of a home built in Mexico Beach was 1983. Nine years prior to Andrew, the lessons learned and the higher building codes that became mandatory through most of South Florida. What’s worse is that the most common type of home construction was wood-frame rather than concrete. 

It’s clear that had the Miami-Dade standards been used we’d have a much more manageable situation on our hands. The top winds associated with Irma last year after landfall were 142 mph. It’s possible they hit higher, but the gauges were blown out in the keys, just 13 mph below Michael, yet you see that vast difference in the building standards with largely newer and stronger construction in the keys and South-Western Florida compared with Mexico Beach for example.  

The lesson and my real takeaway is the need for improved construction along all coastal homes that might be substandard. Otherwise, it’s simply a game of roulette and a matter of time. 

Photo by: HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images

 

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