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Fla. Building Code Improvements A Bright Spot During Irma

Law360, Miami (September 19, 2017, 9:19 PM EDT) — With its impact felt from Key West to Jacksonville, Hurricane Irma delivered Florida a mighty blow, but building industry experts say the storm’s destruction would have been much worse if not for stronger building codes and regulations enacted after the devastation of Hurricane Andrew 25 years ago.

Andrew was a wake-up call for Floridians, who had grown complacent about the potential power of these storms. But the aftermath of Irma proves that the steps taken since then have been effective and that a proactive approach to building with hurricanes in mind must continue.

“I think it’s unbelievable how we marched through the storm with almost no structural damages,” said Charles Brecker, a partner in the real estate practice groups at Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP who also serves on the board for several Florida builders associations. “I think it gave us a real positive reinforcement that we’re doing things right, and it also shows that with future development, we need to do so responsibly.”

Brecker and other experts noted that for southeast Florida and most of the state, reports of structural damage were mostly limited to impacts from fallen trees.

“I don’t want to belittle the damage caused to the Keys and the West Coast and flooding in some areas of Miami, but compared to the damage in Andrew, Florida communities fared much better than we would have fared if building to the standards of 1992,” said Noah Breakstone, who as managing partner of BTI Partners has developed projects in various markets around the state.

Although post-storm assessments are just beginning, these experts say it is already apparent where some of the focus should be for future steps to make these communities even more resilient during hurricane season.

Andrew, which slammed into southern Miami-Dade County on Aug. 24, 1992, as a Category 5 hurricane, stunned the community by flattening entire neighborhoods of newer, shoddily built homes. The catastrophic destruction prompted manifold changes in building regulations.

“I think you have to give a lot of credit to the public. Their willingness to be regulated is kind of proportional to their perceived risk,” said Michael Goolsby, Miami-Dade County’s current division chief for board and code administration. “Andrew was a real rough ride for many people. I think it imprinted on them the importance of having a structure that can withstand these types of strong winds that are generated by a hurricane.”

Immediate steps were taken in Miami-Dade and Broward counties with the implementation of the South Florida Building Code in 1994.

Aimed at securing the entire “building envelope” against hurricane-strength winds, new requirements included stricter rules for roofing materials and how they were attached as well as “strapping” or fastening systems to keep them from flying off. All new homes had to be equipped with storm shutters or impact windows, and walls, doors and other openings also had to meet wind load and impact standards.

New lab tests, including firing 9-foot two-by-fours out of air cannons at windows and doors, were developed to certify products’ strength.

And in an important third step, licensing requirements were bolstered for contractors.

One of the problems discovered after Andrew was that not only was the original construction of many new buildings inadequate but also much remedial work, such as window replacements, had been done wrong, according to Steven B. Lesser, chair of the construction law and litigation practice group at Becker & Poliakoff PA.

“The execution of the work in place is critical, and I think that has led to the reduced impact of hurricanes in South Florida,” he said of the revised requirements, which he described as “quite restrictive and quite specific.”

Enforcement and education — for both inspectors and contractors — also received more attention, according to Goolsby. Each code enforcement team in Miami-Dade County was assigned a structural plan reviewer, he said, and in recent years, more and more developers putting up big projects have also chosen to obtain independent peer reviews of their plans, according to Lesser.

Heightened standards expanded statewide in 2002, when the state replaced a patchwork system of county and municipal codes with a uniform Florida Building Code for the first time. It designated “impact debris regions” featuring more stringent impact protection requirements, mostly for coastal areas. Miami-Dade and Broward also maintained their even more robust standards, including “high velocity hurricane zones,” Goolsby said.

The Keys, which these experts noted have many older homes and a particularly vulnerable geography, did not adopt South Florida’s higher standards, Goolsby said, but he added that it appears that many of the newer buildings in the area actually fared all right during Irma under the standard state code.

Over the years, the Florida Building Code has received several updates, with a sixth edition due at the end of the year (although lessons from Irma will likely have to wait for the next round of updates). After Hurricanes Wilma and Katrina caused large shards of glass to fall from high-rises in 2005, the code was modified to require outer panes to be made of safety glass that crumbles when broken, Goolsby said. As a result of those storms, standards were also increased for strapping down rooftop air conditioners.

“I think Florida has been very proactive, and definitely South Florida has been very proactive,” Breakstone said.

The effect of these code changes is evident not just in newer buildings but also in work done on older homes, Lesser said. After Wilma hit South Florida as a Category 2 storm, he said, it seemed as if every home in his community in Boca Raton had roof damage or broken windows, and there was building debris everywhere. After Irma, the damage was limited to trees.

“You looked around and everybody had a [new] roof put on … and they had installed hurricane shutters or impact windows,” Lesser said. “I think it’s making a huge difference.”

In preliminary check-ins with their builder clients, Lesser and Brecker both reported hearing of few losses and “just a lot of cleanup,” reports that match up with what Goolsby’s teams of code experts have been seeing during their field assessments. “At this point, we’re not finding anything significant that would require modification of the code,” he said.

But several issues that affect the building industry already stand out as needing closer review.

Some of the most dramatic scenes produced by Irma were the flooding of the Brickell District in downtown Miami, on the West Coast and in parts of Jacksonville. While those floodwaters receded much more quickly than those in Houston after Hurricane Harvey last month, storm surge was a major concern ahead of Irma’s arrival and rising sea levels have also made flooding an increasingly common concern after intense conventional rainstorms and during extreme high tides.

Changes in first-floor elevation requirements could be an area for code changes, Breakstone suggested, but he added that this is also an issue for government to address through infrastructure improvements.

“Cities are going to have to look at handling surge and removing water in much more efficient systems,” he said.

Power outages have also been grabbing the headlines as they have dragged on for some residents for more than a week after Irma passed. Breakstone said putting power lines underground, which is required for new developments, is going to need to continue as an important element of maintaining service during storms.

Backup energy sources for buildings could also be a hot topic, Brecker said. He suggested that while nursing homes are on the front burner, the idea should extend to other facilities, such as schools that are used as storm shelters and in the state’s many elder communities.

Looking more directly at building practices, rules regarding how construction sites must be secured during storms may draw greater scrutiny to close up a gap between enforcement and what must automatically be done in preparation, Lesser said.

“You don’t have time to figure that out on the fly when you get a hurricane watch or warning,” he said.

Irma highlighted this issue by felling two cranes in downtown Miami. This is a sore spot, Goolsby said, since the county passed an ordinance on crane safety several years ago and managed to hold on to hurricane provisions after lengthy litigation with builders only to see the state Legislature fully preempt local regulation of cranes, even for public safety.

Barring new legislation, Lesser said the current situation could lead to neighboring properties demanding bonds or that they be named as insurance beneficiaries when granting air rights for these cranes to go up. And with available development sites growing scarce in downtown Miami and Fort Lauderdale, the added density makes protecting adjacent properties a bigger issue.

Breakstone, Lesser and Brecker all said that while there has been industry resistance to additional regulations in the past — including the crane ordinance — local builders would likely be open to additional regulations as long as government does not dig too indiscriminately into their profits.

“Some builders and builders’ groups, they’re all for safety but they don’t want over-regulation because it dips into their profits,” Lesser said. “But safety is everything.”