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Old 26-08-2004, 01:16   #1
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Hurricane 'Charley'

From the August 19, 2004 “Sarasota Herald-Tribune Co. (Florida)

Charley's devastation provides laboratory for the building trade

With construction experts still probing damage from Hurricane Charley, one preliminary idea is emerging: Builders and building officials learned lessons from deadly Andrew that paid off in the form of stronger houses.

The Category 4 storm that devastated South Florida in 1992 compelled officials to strengthen the state's building code.

And now, Charley is providing a massive laboratory to engineers and building inspectors to determine what protection methods worked best and whether their efforts to strengthen the code mattered.

Tim Reinhold, vice president of engineering for Tampa's Institute for Business and Home Safety, thinks even the early evidence tells the story.

"In a lot of cases, the newer houses are almost untouched," Reinhold said.

But not in every case, and examples abound of new houses that failed while older, pre-Andrew houses survived.

While a complete assessment is still months away, a few conclusions can be made.

Houses that survived Charley drew on a combination of factors, from how they were positioned relative to the strongest winds, to their overall design and construction, to whether the homeowner took precautions to safeguard the structure.

For engineers and building consultants, the damage has been telling. But questions persist, including whether a gabled roof, if properly anchored, is more vulnerable than a hip one. Is a steep pitch better than shallow? Tile roof coverings, shingles or standing-seam metal? Concrete block or wood-frame construction?

And, finally, can any one design really be invulnerable to winds hitting 160 mph?

Many factors to survival

All these factors can affect a home's survivability in a monster hurricane.

But each case is different, the experts say, and in the end even luck can play a role.

A strong house can fail and a weak one survive depending on where the wind blows. An old house can endure while its newer, lighter, post-Andrew neighbors are ripped apart.

Such is the streaky nature of the winds in the eye wall of a hurricane, a phenomenon revealed by Andrew.

Building experts generally agree that hip roofs, where four sides meet at a ridge, are preferable to gabled ones. They also insist that the 1995 code, and its amended 1999 and 2002 versions, made a difference.

Just ask Alan Rubin. He's not a building expert. He owns a home in Charlotte County. Had he waited a few years, he might now have a place to come home to.

"Next time, it will be concrete block and hurricane glass," said Rubin, who huddled beneath a mattress in a bathtub as Hurricane Charley ripped apart his house, starting at the gabled northwest corner.

Never again.

If Rubin had built after 1992's Hurricane Andrew, his two-story home in Charlotte County's Harbour Heights neighborhood might now be livable.

That's because after Andrew, Miami-Dade enacted the toughest building code in the nation.

It required hurricane straps and steel brackets to hold the roof to the walls, and extra wood nailed to roof trusses to make the roof system heavier and less susceptible to wind uplift.

Concrete downpours and shearwall segments were mandated to keep walls from tipping sideways. Posts bolted to the foundation were required to tie the building together from the ground up.

The 2002 Florida unified building code went a step further.

Builders were required to "protect the envelope" by providing approved shutters or impact-resistant windows in new houses.

In the absence of those, the house must be "engineered to internal pressures," meaning that if a window or reinforced garage door fails, the rushing wind won't blow the house apart.

"The anchor straps going to every roof truss has clearly made a pretty significant difference," said Chris Guerra, owner of Diligent Property Inspections LLC of Osprey. "What you will find in many cases is that on the new homes, the roof shingles and tar paper are completely gone, but the roof structure itself is intact."

That can give homeowners some breathing room to cover the roof before it rains.

"Of course there are no guarantees," Guerra said. "You might survive the winds, but then rain causes flooding. Or a tree can fall on your house, or a utility pole can fall."

Overworked inspectors

Enforcing the code presents another problem.

Inspections, even well-meaning ones, can be spotty and reveal only some of the hidden shortcomings of a house.

Then there's the fact that Southwest Florida is experiencing an unprecedented building boom, placing contractors and building inspectors who are already in short supply under enormous pressure.

The result, say the experts, is that some new houses being built fail to meet the full letter of the code.

"County building inspectors are overworked and underpaid, and they can't check everything," said Cindy Poltrock of CSP Roof Consultants in Sarasota.

Given these problems, it's no wonder that surviving a devastating storm in this post-Andrew era depends as much on the quality of construction as on the code.

In the case of Charley, some pre-World War II houses weathered the storm because they were heavier than their post-war neighbors, Poltrock says.

And in other cases, older houses blew away while younger ones survived, strengthened by concrete block walls, hurricane straps and impact-resistant windows -- products of the building code.

But in the end, the code is only as good as the roofer or framer swinging the hammer.

Skilled subcontractors are getting hard to come by and building inspectors can't be everywhere at once, says Poltrock. When poor workmanship occurs, some of it inevitably slips by.

"You have framers that are not licensed and stucco crews that are not licensed," she says. "It's up to the general contractor to know what's required and the building supervisor to see that it's built accordingly. That's not happening.

"What is happening is the final design or installation analysis is being done by the guy in the field with the hammer and nails."

On Tuesday, Norman Nixon of Engineering Solutions Inc. in Sarasota surveyed some homes west of U.S. 41 in Port Charlotte.

It didn't take him long to spot evidence of shoddy construction that he thinks contributed to the damage.

"This area is an excellent example of the difference between poor construction and good construction," Nixon said. "When you have this many houses that survive and look good, they all should have survived the storm."

Nixon pointed to one house on Mirando Lane that looked untouched by Charley's winds. It didn't lose a shingle.

But right around the corner on Canal Terrace, a blue tarp covered a house with significant roof damage.

Nixon blamed poor construction. But he also noted that the person who inspected that roof failed to do his job, too.

A diligent roof inspector will examine every aspect of a roof's construction, even if that means climbing onto the house to ensure enough nails are being used.

But in reality, says Nixon, some inspectors simply drive by and sign off on the work without leaving their cars. That's because they carry too heavy a workload.

John Kampmann, an engineer with MEA Engineers in Sarasota, said he found similar construction problems in Punta Gorda on Saturday.

"There were homes and business severely damaged that didn't appear to be structurally reinforced the way modern homes have been for the past 20 years," he said.

"In general, if a structure is built according to the building codes, it stands a good chance of surviving."
Gord May
"If you didn't have the time or money to do it right in the first place, when will you get the time/$ to fix it?"

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