Examining Florida’s Hurricane Vulnerabilities

Cindy Shaw, Senior Engineer and Southeast Regional Manager, Haag Engineering Services

Is Florida’s building code protecting all of us?  That’s what we asked in two recent episodes of The Florida Insurance Roundup podcast.  “It’s not that we expect to have no damage when we have a Category 5 hurricane, but we would like to not have catastrophic damage.  We would like to not have loss of life.  We would like the homes to still be livable.  And with regard to Hurricane Michael and up in the Panhandle, we failed on all three of those fronts,” answered Cindy Shaw, a Senior Engineer and Southeast Regional Manager for Haag Engineering Services, a global forensic engineering and consulting firm.

Bryan Norcross, Hurricane Specialist, WPLG-TV Local 10 News

Noted South Florida television meteorologist Bryan Norcross agreed, noting that although we have one state building code, it has different wind standards depending on where you live.  “We have this high-velocity wind zone here in Southeast Florida, for no rational reason does it stop at the Broward County lines.  There’s just no meteorological reason why you couldn’t have a Category 5 hurricane strike any part of the state of Florida and have a Category 3 or 4 hurricane go all the way across the state.  Ironically, the Panhandle is especially vulnerable to strong hurricanes,” he said.

As for the higher cost of construction that comes with a stronger code, Norcross and Shaw agreed that there are other places in the building where cost savings could be achieved and channeled to build a safer, more durable house.   “It’s just too easy to do it all the way right, than to do it halfway,” said Shaw.

Our podcast discussion was based on a University of Florida engineering school report that found the building code for even the most recently built homes in the Panhandle wasn’t tough enough to withstand Hurricane Michael’s Cat-5 winds of 160 mph.  You can listen to or read the podcast summary here.  The Florida House of Representative’s Business and Professions Subcommittee recently received a briefing on the UF report.

Charlie Clary, Founding Principal, DAG Architects

A few weeks later, we talked with a former state senator who had a hand in creating the Florida Building Code and the Panhandle’s lower wind standards.  In the podcast Why the Panhandle Wasn’t Hurricane Strong for Michael, former Senator Charlie Clary explained that as part of making the codes tougher and more uniform throughout the state, policymakers wanted it to still be somewhat affordable as they built new homes, because of the very intense building growth at that time.  “We have to just learn lessons from Michael and make the changes necessary,” said Clary, an architect.

This newsworthy podcast was based on two recent FEMA post-hurricane advisories showing how mitigation measures failed in Panhandle construction.  They paint a dismal result.   Buildings and homes in the Panhandle with wind retrofits suffered significant damage—even in cases when the retrofit itself performed well—because other building vulnerabilities were not addressed when the retrofit was implemented.  In other words, your building is only as strong as its weakest link.

Dr. Arn Womble, Research Engineer, Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety

FEMA also examined materials and methods used in mitigation and noted specific performance issues.  Dr. Arn Womble, with the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, also joined us on the podcast.  He expressed the frustration felt by many that roofing shingles don’t perform as well in real life as they do in the lab tests.  “Roofing products themselves need improvement…and siding products haven’t gotten as much attention as roofing, but need to going forward,” he said.

Dr. Karthik Ramanathan, Assistant Vice President & Principal Engineer, AIR Worldwide

Dr. Karthik Ramanathan, with AIR Worldwide, agreed.  He said he’s seen improper installation of metal roofs in both Hurricanes Michael and Irma.  “Time and again, you saw metal roofs installed on pre-existing shingle roofs. There seems to be a lack of knowledge and a need for education in proper installation,” he said.  Dr. Ramanathan agrees that the Panhandle and the rest of Florida need to move to the high-velocity zone (170 mph wind standards), which is essentially Miami-Dade and Broward, not just in terms of building standards but also enforcement standards.

We are told that the Florida Building Commission has taken note.  It’s taking several steps with the support of the homebuilders to strengthen the next 7th Edition of the Florida Building Code to be published in December 2020.  It includes adoption of ASCE 7-16, the newest Minimum Design Loads and Associated Criteria.

House with typical envelope damage (roof covering, siding, soffit, and fascia cover) observed on newer buildings after Hurricane Michael in the Panama City area, from FEMA’s Best Practices for Minimizing Wind and Water Infiltration Damage advisory

While there’s no reported plans to change the various wind standards around Florida, the method for determining the design pressures on roofs for buildings less than 60 feet in height has changed.  There are expected to be requirements for secondary roof underlayment to prevent water intrusion in the event the roof covering is blown off.  This is for new construction as this standard has been around over 10 years for reroofing work.  New sections are also being added to the code detailing requirements for the attachment of vinyl, fiber-cement, and hardboard.  Wood structural panels and soffit panels are also being added to the code.  All these moves were applauded by the podcast’s guests.

While we know that wind damage can be deadly, water damage is more expensive to repair than wind damage.  There is ongoing concern that even for those with insurance checks, some Panhandle residents may not be able to afford to rebuild their homes.  Together, these are startling reports and worthy of a thorough review by all stakeholders.  They show it’s time for these tougher standards, materials, and practices to be enacted across the Florida Panhandle and across Florida.