It's not as though Mike Goolsby had been hoping for a couple of hurricanes to come tearing through Miami. Still, from a professional perspective, Goolsby and other building code experts had waited nearly 11 years for last year's storms to occur.
Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma, which blew through South Florida as category 1 or 2 storms, were the first real-world tests of Miami-Dade County's Hurricane Andrew–inspired über-building code, developed in 1994, and tweaked constantly ever since.
“It was not until the storms of 2005 that the improved structural building envelope provisions of the building code were put to the test in actual conditions,” wrote Goolsby, Miami-Dade's acting director of building code compliance, in a storm assessment report.
The storms' winds barely had subsided before Goolsby and his staff were swarming the county, analyzing the damage. “A hurricane clearly is an unfortunate event, but for folks like us it provides an opportunity to assess the way the building envelope performs,” Goolsby says. “It gives us a lot of information, and it's a lot more comprehensive than what you would get in a lab.”
The rest of the state, which operates under the general provisions of the Florida building code, was tested in 2004, when three storms crisscrossed the middle of the state and a fourth plowed into the Panhandle. In the aftermath, construction experts poured in with their cameras to assess what code provisions worked and what didn't. What they found, says Dana Bres, a director of the Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing, was that the Florida building code, for the most part, worked in preventing major damage to structures.
“Florida put a lot of effort into figuring out what [it] needed to do,” says Bres. “As a result, a home built before the post-Andrew building code is not as rigorously designed and inspected as one that was constructed after the post-Andrew code.”
In Punta Gorda, Fla., where Hurricane Charley did major damage, the difference in damage to newer homes versus those built before the new Florida building code was dramatic. “In many cases, the hurricane damages [to new homes] could be described as cosmetic,” says Bres. “The damage went from catastrophic [on older homes] to an irritant.”
Even the Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS), a Tampa, Fla.–based organization sponsored by the insurance industry, gives high marks to the state's code.
“Florida has shown that the new Florida building codes have performed pretty well given the severity of the various storms,” says Chuck Vance, IBHS's manager of its fortified building program. “Building codes can work, but then you have states that don't have any building codes, and there we have a bunch of sticks being thrown together by builders, and they aren't going to stand up.”