Hurricane Building Codes

When Frederick hit the gulf coast in September of ’79, it did so with winds that gusted to 145 miles per hour and waves surging as high as 12 feet. Damage was estimated at 2.3-billion dollars – the most on record for that time.

In some cities, three out of every four buildings were destroyed. It was clear that if people were to continue living here, building practices had to change.

Architect John Senkarik says, “That’s why you see a lot of high buildings with parking underneath them, but we had to raise them up above the maximum wave height that was anticipated for the lowest horizontal member, which would be the lowest horizontal structural beam.”

Several communities have since adopted the international building code. The code focuses on two main problems: the wind load hitting sheer walls and wave height.

Senkarik says, “Once a window breaks out, you have positive pressure against the front of the building, you have negative pressure against the back of the building. When you break a window, the two combine together and blows the walls and roof off, and that’s what the object is to protect the roof from going away which protects the rest of the structure.”

Some developers are moving ahead on their own, adopting their own tougher standards. Some Florida condos were built closely modeling the code of the State of Florida, one of the toughest in the nation. Buildings include steel reinforced concrete and 8 to 12 inch thick walls. Some developers have even begun using products that minimize the impact of wind, water and debris. Products such as blinds that not only shut out the wind, but also keep out water.

Jim Fletcher with Roll-Away, Inc., says, “It’s what we call percolation, water gets in the track, under pressure, because water will stack up (several feet) high with a hundred mile an hour wind coming in and holding it. As it gets there, its gotta go somewhere.”

Leigh Powell is a home builder. She’s seen the change in building codes over the years. It’s what you can’t see that both Powell and her site supervisor agree make the home safer – an anchor bolt. Stronger ones will be used to fit all exterior walls to the foundation, and there will be more of them.

These stronger bolts will also be spaced closer together. In addition, “hurricane clips” will anchor the house from roof to floor by tying the rafter to the walls all the way through to the foundation.

When it comes to high winds, windows are the most vulnerable part of the house. There’s a fine balancing act being played out – one that toughens standards yet keeps costs under control. New glass is available that is more wind resistant, but builders like Powell say right now it’s hard to find and very expensive. So, she’s chosen another option. “At the closing of the house we have to have plywood numbered, cut and ready to be adhered for the customer who buys the house, now whether they put them up in case of a hurricane is up to them.”

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