Courtesy Dean Ruark

As a Floridian, I find hurricanes not just frightening but heartbreaking. I traveled to the Florida Panhandle two days after Hurricane Michael hit last year, and I saw firsthand how that storm decimated homes and affected peoples’ lives. Immediately after Hurricane Michael, I was part of a PGT Innovations team of engineers and industry experts who joined the National Science Foundation, the University of Florida and several other organizations to perform detailed damage assessments in Bay County, which includes storm-ravaged places like Panama City and Mexico Beach.

In my work at PGT Innovations, one of my primary goals is to protect lives and property by making impact-resistant products. To this end, I visit storm-damaged areas in order to see for myself how hurricane damage occurs. Seeing firsthand the raw effects of a storm – prior to any clean-up efforts – provides valuable insight into how buildings respond to high winds, flying debris, and wind-driven rain.

As a professional engineer, I have intimate knowledge of the structural systems of buildings. To see entire buildings destroyed by wind, debris, and water is a profound experience. I witnessed many beautiful homes 20 miles from the shore that were destroyed; the roofs lifted clean off. While humbling, it was also frustrating to know that this damage may have been able to be prevented, or at least lessened.

Dean Ruark
Courtesy of Dean Ruark Dean Ruark

In Bay County, where Hurricane Michael made landfall, building codes only require opening protection within 1 mile of the coast. But hurricanes don’t magically stop being hurricanes once they reach a mile inland. In fact, Hurricane Michael was still a Category 3 storm when it hit Georgia, a full 75 miles north. More importantly, in our post-storm assessment, we noted that the majority of home damage was caused by wind and wind-borne debris – the type of damage that opening protection is designed to mitigate against.

The devastation that Hurricane Michael left behind made it clear to our team that we need to look at the vulnerability of areas that have weaker building codes compared to those areas in southern parts of Florida with stronger codes. All of Florida is susceptible to major storms, so all of Florida should have common-sense building codes that can save lives and prevent this type of large-scale destruction of property.

After the devastation caused by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, common-sense building codes were composed and enacted in South Florida. Today – 27 years later – those codes remain the most stringent building requirements in the nation, and their effectiveness has been proven. Post-storm assessments of areas in the path of Hurricane Irma in 2017 showed that homes built after these codes were in place sustained less damage than homes that were not built to these codes. This solution on a broader scale is vital to the long-term survival of our state’s home building industry.

At this very moment, homes are being rebuilt in Panama City and Mexico Beach with the same standards that were no match for Hurricane Michael. We know hurricanes will always come, and there’s evidence to suggest that they’ll keep getting stronger. So those new homes will be asked to withstand not just next year’s storms, but the storms that come 10, 20, or 50 years from now.

Better building codes represent a small, short-term investment that protects all of us in the long-term. Rebuilding two or three times over is inconceivable, especially when it can be prevented by better standards from the get-go. An investment in today’s building standards saves innumerable costs and crises in the future.

But the mission of evaluating and improving building codes doesn’t belong to a single entity. Any change in the state’s building codes creates a ripple effect throughout the industry, affecting not only builders, contractors and business owners, but trickling down to the homeowners themselves. For that reason, any improvements to the state building codes must stem from all parties – industry experts to homeowners. We all have to be a part of this conversation.

Everyone wants to work together to safeguard not only our property, but the lives of our families, friends, and neighbors. We owe it to ourselves, as Floridians, to address this issue as soon as possible. Our future depends on it.

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