FLORIDA BUILDERS HAVE A MESS ON their hands. After four hurricanes, many areas need massive rebuilding and retrofitting but lack the labor and materials to get the job done quickly. In the worst-hit areas of the northwest panhandle and the southwest Gulf Coast, construction crews have had to contend with gasoline shortages, power outages, 10-foot-high piles of moldy couches and carpets, soaking-wet fiberglass insulation, and crumbled gypsum since hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne bombarded the state within weeks of each other last August and September. On hard-hit Captiva Island, construction workers have begun to wear bio-hazard masks to protect themselves from airborne mold. Even inland areas such as Orlando suffered from the storms—especially from water infiltration. The Florida HBA has received more than 1,000 complaints from new-home owners citing water leakage. The most common complaint: water penetrating through concrete block walls.

INFIRMITIES OF AGE?: Nearly all the severe structural damage from Florida's four storms struck homes built prior to new codes and building techniques. In a typical tear-down scenario, homes lost shingles, then sheathing, and then walls to high winds.
INFIRMITIES OF AGE?: Nearly all the severe structural damage from Florida's four storms struck homes built prior to new codes and building techniques. In a typical tear-down scenario, homes lost shingles, then sheathing, and then walls to high winds.

The FHBA has hired an engineer to look into the problem, says Edie Ousley, spokesperson for the association's Orlando headquarters. One complication, she says, is that “insurers are not covering the damage. They're calling it a construction defect.” She notes that the problem could be related to the use of certain types of stucco finishes or paint.

Ousley says the situation is tough to assess because a scenario like this—four consecutive storms—was never supposed to happen. After the first storm hit, people lost power, so they couldn't dry their homes out before the second storm arrived. “We're not building waterproof homes,” she says. “They're water-resistant so they can breathe. But we may wind up seeing more of a definition in the code about what you can use for covering. In the meantime, we're keeping our builders informed and in the loop.”

When the social and financial fallout from these storms is finally tallied, it's not home builders who will bear the brunt of the suffering. The worst hardships of reconstruction will fall on low- and middle-income Floridians, who may be forced to meet much tougher (read “more expensive”) code requirements. For those who have lost their modest manufactured homes, the future is even more uncertain.

“I think you'll see the state looking at changing the code again, making it more widespread,” says Debi Peterson, executive officer of the Flagler County-Palm Coast HBA. “But we've already just been hit in this county with three impact fees in one day. And land prices are already sky-high.”

Peterson also fears that the storms will result in a clampdown on manufactured housing (see “Manufacturing Change”), leaving many buyers unable to afford to own anything in Florida. “When you're talking about $60,000 for an inland lot that's 80 by 125 feet, that pushes a lot of people out of the market,” Peterson says. “I think you'll see demographics changing in the state. You will find builders and consumers going other places.”

That hasn't happened yet. Maybe it doesn't have to. Based on what Builder's editors saw when they visited Southwest Florida following Hurricane Charley, costly, exacting codes may not be what's needed to save lives and structures in the future. Most of the major storm damage can be traced to a half dozen or so specific causes, outlined below. Address these, and the next storm should have a lot fewer weak points to exploit.

AFTERMATH: Downward pressure from wind entering soffits collapsed ceilings in otherwise undamaged homes (left). Flat roofing tiles, clay and cementitious, proved vulnerable to hurricane winds—in part because many were fastened with mortar only. Experts suggest using screws to anchor tiles.
AFTERMATH: Downward pressure from wind entering soffits collapsed ceilings in otherwise undamaged homes (left). Flat roofing tiles, clay and cementitious, proved vulnerable to hurricane winds—in part because many were fastened with mortar only. Experts suggest using screws to anchor tiles.

PRESSURE POINTS Before we review some of the frequently damaged areas we saw in new construction, one caveat: Nearly all of the severe damage we encountered that affected site-built homes was in neighborhoods 10 or more years old. To narrow the field even more, the least-maintained homes showed the most noticeable damage. Ten-year-old asphalt shingles flew away; new ones didn't. Homes without shutters or impact-resistant glass lost windows; those with these features repelled debris.

What's more surprising, however, is that despite winds up to 130 mph from Charley, very little structural damage was visible on homes less than 10 years old—which includes numerous homes built prior to Florida's 2002 wind codes. That doesn't mean those homes escaped unscathed. Thousands are still unlivable. That's because wind and rain penetrated the structures, soaking them down and tearing them apart. So for our analysis of construction weak points, we've focused on penetration points—kinks in the peripheral armor of the home.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Orlando, FL.