Hurricane Michael exposes building-code weakness in Florida’s Panhandle

Until 2007, building-code standards for windstorm resistance were more rigorous in South Florida than in the Panhandle, where major hurricanes have been rare

Hurricane Michael (Credit: NOAA | ARS Technica)
Hurricane Michael (Credit: NOAA | ARS Technica)

Florida’s statewide building code is one of the strongest anywhere, but Hurricane Michael exposed its weakness in the state’s Panhandle region.

The code’s requirements for wind-resistant construction vary by location in the state. They are stringent in South Florida but substantially less rigorous in most of the Panhandle.

For example, the code requires that the newly built structures in Miami-Dade County must be designed to remain intact despite wind speed of about 175 miles per hour, according to John Pistorino, a structural engineer in Miami.

But in parts of the Panhandle where Michael did the most damage – including Apalachicola, Mexico Beach and Panama City – the design standard for wind resistance drops to 120 miles per hour and rises gradually to 150 miles per hour in the Pensacola area near the state’s western border.

Michael made landfall on Wednesday in Mexico Beach as a Category 4 storm with sustained wind speed of 155 miles per hour. It was the first recorded Category 4 hurricane to hit the Panhandle.

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Because the requirements of the state building code are based largely on the history of hurricanes in a particular area and the probability of a future hurricanes, scientists and engineers determined that stringent standards for roof construction and wind-resistant doors, shutters and windows were unnecessary in the Panhandle.

But Michael may have reversed that thinking, according to Craig Fugate, former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Florida’s former chief of emergency management.

After Hurricane Andrew crushed southern Miami-Dade County in 1992, the statewide building code incorporated a stricter South Florida Building Code, which allowed Miami-Dade and Broward counties to enforce their own standards for wind-resistant structures.

But Pistorino told the Miami Herald that the Legislature declined to apply the same rigorous standards to the rest of Florida to preclude higher construction costs statewide.

That eventually changed after 2004, when Hurricane Ivan made landfall in the Panhandle as a Category 3 hurricane with wind speeds near 130 miles per hour.

In 2007, the Legislature applied the state building code to construction throughout Florida. But before it did, many substandard buildings went up in the Panhandle, according to William Merrill, vice president of Rebuild Northwest Florida, a non-profit organization that does retrofitting in the Pensacola area to increase the resistance of homes to hurricanes. [Miami Herald]Mike Seemuth

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