Blame for Hurricane-Michael-Related Building Code Failure is Misplaced

Video posts on social media, which appeared even as Hurricane Michael roared across the Florida panhandle, revealed buildings falling down, and whole structures lifted up and away. Also revealed was that the hurricane was an almost irresistible force moving against newly-built structures, which proved to be not-so-immovable objects.

Now, the second-guessing begins, and the blame for much of the damage is being placed on the failure of the building code to require better construction practices, mostly by contractors (term used loosely) who have turned out to be the sorriest excuse for ‘builders’ ever seen in America. The failure is not of the code, itself, but of the breakdown of implementation of best practices for overseeing any given project, by a competent, supervising builder (term used correctly).

Many individuals who decided to call themselves home-builders, after about 2003, actually have no experience at all with the how-tos of construction. Instead, they practice the business model of drive-by supervision. From the seat of a truck they’ll carefully check to see IF something is built, not HOW it’s built. They are so ignorant, they don’t know if it’s built by the plan, by the code, or by any accepted standards, whatsoever. They don’t belong in the building business; and they aren’t building homes of good quality. They are wasting time, materials, and money. Their customers are being cheated. Society at large is being defrauded for having to pick up the tab to clean up their messes, projects which have too easily blown down, leaving huge masses of debris choking streets, yards, and waterways.

The code already requires very good practices for the installation of storm-resistant assemblies. But what does it matter when those practices are ignored?

Here’s just one example :
A video, shared on a popular social media platform in real time during the storm, shows a row of seaside homes being buffeted by the gale. One middle house is under construction. The wall and roof framing are completed, but (because the house is under construction) only an unfinished skin of plywood covers the walls and roof. Suddenly, the second floor is lifted several feet, torn loose by the wind. It shifts a few feet to the side where, released from Michael’s grip, it falls, part on its own remaining structure, and part on the house next door. By the way, this was the only apparent damage to the house next door.

The wind-tossing of this house may have been preventable if the building code had been followed. The code requires that homes built in high-risk storm zones, of which the coast of the Florida/Alabama panhandle is one, must have a net of steel anchor-cables installed. These cables, embedded into all edges of the foundation, traverse through the walls and over the roof, connected at many points to the framing, to be embedded again on the opposite edge of the foundation. The idea is to form a net of steel, the sole purpose of which is to hold the house down in high winds.

But in the video, during the flight of the second floor, it’s raised high enough to show only empty space, beneath. There are no cables dangling in the wind. There is no steel safety net. The building code was ignored.

Of course, even for projects where the code is completely and correctly built-in, a direct hit by a strong storm of any force or category will cause severe damage. A Michael-sized weather phenomenon doesn’t simply blow over an area. It scours the surface and leaves it bare. Still, random eddy’s and whirlwinds within the storm make it possible for catastrophic currents to blow down even correctly-built structures, while lesser winds swirl by others, leaving them intact. The objective is to build in a way that can survive those lesser swirls.

The building code, as it exists right now, when followed, is a very good guide for building substantial homes, which might be survivors of the storm. But when the rules are skipped over, the house just might skip away.

 

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Andy Bozeman

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