Experts: Hurricane Codes Saved Lives, Property in 2017

February 27th, 2018 by Trey Barrineau

The devastating hurricanes that hit Florida and the Caribbean in 2017 caused dozens of deaths and billions of dollars in damage. However, presenters at last week’s American Architectural Manufacturers Association (AAMA) Southeast Region meeting in Orlando, Fla., said there’s a growing body of data that suggests stronger building codes greatly reduced the devastation caused by the storms.

Despite that, most of the experts agreed that more work needs to be done to maintain strong building codes.

AAMA Southeast president Dean Ruark addresses the conference in Orlando, Fla. (Photo via Twitter)

AAMA Southeast president Dean Ruark of PGT Innovations, along with colleagues Lynn Miller and Bob Beaird, shared some early findings from a major post-hurricane study sponsored by the Florida Building Commission and led by David Prevatt of the University of Florida’s Department of Civil and Coastal Engineering. (PGT was a key participant in the research.)

Beaird discussed a home in the Florida Keys that PGT  visited as part of the study. It was built in 1980 and remodeled in 2004. Windborne debris struck the home’s glass multiple times, and a 2-by-10 even penetrated a door frame, proof that missiles were larger and moving faster than current industry criteria.

Ruark said that’s something he saw as well while taking part in the study.

“In my own experience conducting damage assessments in the Florida Keys following Hurricane Irma, I saw instances of storm surge, water intrusion, as well as windborne debris size, speed and frequency, that exceeded the design limits of current industry standards,” he wrote in his welcome statement for the Southeast Region meeting.

Ruark noted that great progress has been made in Florida’s building codes since 1992, when Hurricane Andrew caused $25 billion in damages in the lower part of the state. Miami-Dade County continues to lead the nation in impact testing criteria, stringency and enforcement. However, he said that not all impact-resistant products are created — or tested — equally. Ruark said missile speed, size, location and frequency should be reviewed with collective findings from universities, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the American Society of Civil Engineers, insurers and industry stakeholders.

Ruark also suggested that changes could be coming to the regulatory environment in the years ahead.

However, those revisions might not be coming anytime soon. AAMA code consultant Dick Wilhelm updated attendees on regional legislation related to hurricane codes. He pointed out that a special committee set up by Florida in the wake of the 2017 storm season didn’t recommend any immediate changes to the state’s building codes.

Wilhelm said the Florida House of Representatives set up the Florida Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, which caused $6.55 billion in property damage claims, $2.5 billion in losses to agriculture and forced 6.5 million people to evacuate.

The committee gathered information, solicited ideas for improvement, and addressed hurricane preparedness and response. It evaluated the performance of the Florida Building Code to determine if any changes were needed , and it identified additional mechanisms and incentives to harden existing homes against disaster.

Wilhelm said the committee’s report, which came out in mid-January, included no recommendations on building codes/standards or structure hardening. He said the big takeaway is that the Florida Building Code made a difference.

“The committee recognized that this code is one of the most progressive and best enforced in the country,” Wilhelm said.

South Florida After the Storm

Later, Dan Lavrich, the owner of Lavrich & Associates Consulting Engineers in Florida, did a presentation on how South Florida fared in Hurricane Irma.

After the storm, Lavrich said his team inspected several buildings in South Florida that ranged in age from four  to 55 years old. He said structural damage was almost non-existent in every case with only a few minor exceptions.

“This surprised me,” he said.

Despite that, Lavrich said it was his opinion that building codes and standards must be re-evaluated to provide better water resistance during high-wind events.

Lavrich said that when water penetration occurs, there can be both design and installation issues. Manufacturers should be aware of this so they can influence improvements. He said proper design and continued maintenance are essential, though too many people buy into the myth that because a window leaked during a high wind event, it must be replaced.

Caribbean Update

Next, Mike Rimoldi of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, a non-profit dedicated to strengthening residential structures, updated AAMA Southeast attendees on the damage caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Rimoldi said he visited Puerto Rico last year to assess damage with a team of government and local experts. He said buildings he saw showed how devastating the storm surge really was.

According to Rimoldi, it’s not uncommon for hurricane prevention to only focus on the coastal-facing side of the building, but winds in tropical storms can come from all directions. Protecting only one side of the building doesn’t work. Additionally, geological issues also occurred  in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which are mountainous areas. For example, Rimoldi reported seeing a building that had five or six feet of washout underneath it.

Islands like Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are especially challenging for residents because evacuation is next to impossible, Rimoldi said. That’s why stricter codes are needed to make buildings stronger and save lives.

“Maybe impact windows and doors aren’t enough,” he said. “Maybe the whole building needs to be reinforced.”

Reconstruction is already underway in both locations. However, Rimoldi said there’s a lot of un-permitted work going on, which may fail again in the future. Many people on these islands build their own homes, which can take 10-15 years. Because of that, long-term exposure of building products to the elements and reuse of old or possibly damaged materials could cause structural-integrity issues.

He said the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes is urging the U.S. Virgin Islands to update to the latest building codes. Rimoldi’s group said it is ready to assist local building departments in hiring additional staff, train new staff and  local contractors/design pros in code updates, and assist in advising on rebuilding programs.

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