Hurricane Irma Tests Florida Building Codes

September 11, 2017

Hurricane Irma, downgraded to a Category 1 storm after tearing up Florida’s western coast Sunday, may prompt officials to rethink statewide building codes—already the strictest in the nation. Irma, which forced the evacuation of 5.6 million people before making landfall, continued to threaten Florida on Monday morning with strong winds and flooding.

South Florida has seen a construction boom over more than two decades since its last widespread disaster, Hurricane Andrew, reduced 25,500 homes to rubble in 1992. After Andrew, state legislators carved out building codes that required an increase in the amount of wind pressure homes could withstand, stronger roof fasteners, and impact-resistant windows, among other requirements. But Irma is putting those codes to the toughest test yet.

Florida’s population has more than doubled to 20.6 million since then, and more than 2.7 million homes along the state’s 1,350 miles of coastline are at risk of hurricane damage, according to real estate data firm CoreLogic. Between 2003 and 2010, developers added 246 towers along the coast, adding more than 49,000 condo and apartment units to inventory in the state. Since 2011, 144 towers have been completed, adding an additional 10,552 units, according to Peter Zalewski, founder of Florida-based real estate consulting firm Cranespotters.

Florida’s stronger building codes have made a difference in the past, according to a 2004 Institute for Business and Home Safety study conducted in 2004 after Hurricane Charley slammed the state. The study found that homes built after the new codes were implemented had fewer and less severe insurance claims than those built before. Whether the codes are as effective against storms like Irma remains to be determined. “South Florida will be a laboratory for the new building codes,” Zalewski told The Wall Street Journal.

Prior to Irma’s arrival in Florida, some developers asserted that their buildings were ready to withstand impact. “We started building this project realizing a hurricane would eventually hit Miami again,” says Daniel Kodsi, CEO and developer of Paramount Miami Worldcenter, the nation’s second largest real estate development. “We are building an entire modern infrastructure of storm drains. We built a foundation higher than any other project in Miami and added everything ‘hurricane resistant,’ from high-impact glass to auxiliary generators.” The $3.3 billion project, which is still being constructed, includes 1.1 million square feet of residential, retail, transportation, and entertainment space.

Source: “A Staggering Swath of Newly Built South Florida Homes Lie in Irma’s Path,” CNBC (Sept. 8, 2017) and “Hurricane Irma to Test New Codes Put in Place After Andrew,” The Wall Street Journal (Sept. 7, 2017)