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Panhandle building codes under scrutiny after Hurricane Michael

While South Florida has kept up with strict building codes meant to help buildings stand up to hurricane-force winds, the Panhandle didn't start tightening up its codes until later. Exemptions were provided under the theory that the region's forests would act as a barrier against catastrophic storms.

"We're learning painfully that we shouldn't be doing those kinds of exemptions," says a former Panhandle legislator who is now with the Florida Building Commission. "We are vulnerable as any other part of the state. There was this whole notion that the trees were going to help us, take the wind out of the storm. Those trees become projectiles and flying objects."

Hurricane Michael hit the Panhandle with winds of up to 155 mph, and untold acres' worth of destruction followed in its wake. Damage estimates are still being tallied but, as of this posting, 36 people were confirmed dead in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.

It was 1992's Hurricane Andrew that prompted changes, according to the Associated Press. That monster storm's 165-mph winds damaged over 125,000 homes and destroyed virtually every mobile home it touched. The damage highlighted cut-corners that had occurred under a patchwork of local codes. Particle board had been substituted for plywood, for example, and staples had been used in lieu of roofing nails.

By 2001, statewide codes required all new structures to be built to withstand 111-mph winds, while in Miami, most buildings must be able to withstand winds in excess of 170 mph. Reinforced concrete pillars, fortified roofs and shatterproof windows were required, among other items.

Yet it wasn't until 2007 that most homes in the Panhandle were required to meet the new codes, leaving many older homes extremely vulnerable. This was particularly true in Mexico Beach, according to a former FEMA director and former emergency management chief for the state. The town is home to many lower-income people working in the commercial fishing and service industries who live there year-round, and there were lots of older mobile homes.

Even as the search, rescue and recovery efforts wind up, teams are heading to the area to assess the damage. Engineers will try to determine whether the current codes were effective considering the strength of the storm. Then, experts and policymakers will have to decide whether to tighten the codes further, which would mostly affect new buildings and those going through major renovations. Or, the building codes could begin being applied retroactively to shore up the older housing stock. In the courts, we may see housing defect litigation where existing codes were ignored by builders.

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