On hurricanes and building codes, and living in harm's way
By John Zarrella
June 10, 1999
This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.
MIAMI (CNN) -- At 4 a.m., the building stairwell was the only place we felt safe.
Outside, the wind sledge-hammered the sheet glass windows. Each new gust buckled the panes just a bit more until, weakened by the relentless pounding, they began to implode. An awning from a nearby restaurant flew across the parking lot and smashed against the window glass of offices just below us.
As a reporter and Florida resident, I had been through enough hurricanes over the years to know this was a bad one. Holed up in our CNN offices in North Miami on August 24, 1992, we were 30 miles north of the central fury of a storm named Andrew.
At the National Hurricane Center offices, the radar dome was blown from the roof. Wind-recording instruments near Homestead Air Force Base were severed from their masts; last registered wind gusts: 170 miles per hour.
Numerous communities including Naranja Lakes and Country Walk were blown apart. In Homestead, a two-by-four -- as if hurled by some mythological god -- impaled a palm tree, 30 feet up.
When it was over, Andrew left behind $25 billion in damage; 53,000 homes were destroyed. It remains the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.
Andrew not only rearranged the landscape, it rewrote the book on just how destructive a hurricane could be. In South Florida, some insurance rates tripled -- and some people couldn't get insurance at all. Building codes were rewritten.
And forecasters warned that Andrew was a foreshadowing of storms to come; powered by cyclical changes in the atmosphere, they would get bigger and stronger.
Seven years later, we are in the first month of what is forecast to be an unusually strong hurricane season. And, seven years later, talk of easing Florida building codes is raising a storm of controversy.
Counting on a code
Currently, there are some 450 different building codes in Florida, varying by city and county. Builders and developers want a unified code; one set of rules, they argue, would hold down construction costs and bring needed streamlining to the job site.
A state-appointed commission is working to come up with a statewide building code. But its first draft released a couple months ago has left the building industry and government officials all but throwing bricks at each other.
Building codes established in South Florida after Hurricane Andrew are the toughest in the nation. The proposed statewide code, while still better than many states, would not be as tough as the current South Florida code.
For example, storm shutters would no longer be required on new construction. Criteria for wind resistance would be reduced. The number of building inspections during construction would be reduced from eight to three.
Dade and Broward County officials are attacking the building industry, saying it only wants to use cheaper materials so it can make more money. The code applies to everything built, but housing is the real issue of concern for many here.
Building industry officials counter that many of the post-Andrew rules are overkill. And anyway, they say, whatever the building code, unless you build a bomb shelter, your house won't stand up to an Andrew.
Ultimately, the state Legislature will make the decision on the statewide code when it meets next year. By then, commission members say, the code may have gone through two or three more revisions and an ultimate compromise.
Insiders say what may emerge is a code within a code that could allow South Florida to keep key provisions, such as the shutter requirement and wind impact resistance levels.
Counting the costs
In a real sense, the code debate places the property owner between the building industry and the insurance industry; either way, the consumer pays for living near the coast.
Florida prides itself in being the most hurricane-prepared state. And it has motivation to be: Florida sticks out like a sore thumb. It's considered ground zero; more hurricanes have hit here than anywhere else in the continental United States.
Florida has more than $1 trillion in insured property in its coastal counties alone. The insurance industry says rates that skyrocketed after Andrew (and remain at those higher, post-Andrew levels) would likely surge even more if the building code is weakened.
Hurricane experts say the debate couldn't come at a worse time. Ever since Andrew, hurricane activity -- as forecast -- has been on the rise. Not only are more storms than usual expected again this year, more of them are expected to be particularly ferocious.
Of course, they won't all hit land and those that do won't necessarily hit Florida.
But hurricane forecasters say the coastal United States from Maine to Texas grows increasingly vulnerable to the "big one" as more and more people move to the shore. And no major metropolitan area has ever been hit directly by a storm with Andrew's power.
Andrew, with its record-holding $25 billion in damage, missed Miami. And Miami, or Houston, New Orleans, the Jersey shore, New York and Boston could each sustain far more than that in losses if a big one hits directly, insurance officials say.
Then, too, no matter where the next one hits, the nation's taxpayers will doubtless pick up some of the tab. After Andrew, Miami-Dade County received $156 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in reimbursements for items such as debris clean-up, tents and meals.
Since then, FEMA has been preaching mitigation -- that is, for individuals to do what they can to reduce the impact of storms, such as building further back from the shore or putting up shutters with or without a code.
Perhaps the code debate can only go so far. Post-Andrew analysis suggests 40 percent of the losses could have been avoided if buildings and homes had met the code in place at the time. But as juries assessing liability found in the years after Andrew, too much development was going on, and too many people were looking the other way.
In any event, there is a saying that those who ignore history are destined to repeat it. Hurricane forecasters say it's just a matter of time before some city, some community lives through another Andrew and feels that soul-piercing pain of helplessness as homes and lives are torn apart.
National Weather Service
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