Building Code Proven to Help During Storms


MIAMI – Florida leads the nation in strict building codes, and the decades of hard work have paid off in the increasing number of homes and buildings that survive each time a hurricane slashes the state.

But a new report from Swiss Re, a major global re-insurance company, suggests that all those hard-won gains have been undermined by the explosion of growth along the coast. And that has likely helped fuel the skyrocketing price of windstorm insurance across the state.

One year ago, Hurricane Ian struck Southwest Florida as a powerful Category 4 that wiped whole blocks off the map along the coast, and damaged homes and roofs miles inland. It’s the most expensive storm in the state’s history.

If that same storm had struck in the 1970s, the Swiss Re report said, it would have caused half or even a third as much damage as it did.

And while building codes have improved dramatically since 2002, when the updated standards went statewide, the biggest driver behind Ian’s outsize impact was just how many people now live in the strike zone.

“Our models show a clear imbalance: Reducing vulnerability by strengthening building codes, a key element of adaptation, has been insufficient since the 1970s to compensate for expected losses from accompanying population-driven property value growth,” the report, released Monday, read.

‘We do know how to build better’

Some building code experts disagreed with pointing the finger at sprawling growth along the coast for the soaring damage losses and insurance premiums. They argue it’s the state’s aging housing stock that is most vulnerable and newer homes and upgraded old ones have endured high winds better and helped reduce risks.

“I don’t think they’re equal forces,” said Leslie Chapman-Henderson, president of FLASH, or the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes. “We’ve seen the survival of even the most affordable homes in the path of these storms.”

Dorothy Mazzarella, vice president for government relations for the International Code Council, said her key takeaway from the report is the recognition that better building codes work. She said people will always want to live along Florida’s coastline, no matter how vulnerable it is – or how expensive it gets to live there – so the answer is to better prepare for future storms.

“We have to do more on the front end, which is the mitigation side,” Mazzarella said. “We can’t prevent them, but we know we can prepare for them.”

However, Chapman-Henderson added, relying on new construction to strengthen the state’s risky spots only addresses a small part of the problem. Older homes, built before effective hurricane-resistant building codes kicked in, make up the majority of Florida’s housing stock. In the areas touched by Ian’s winds alone, about 69% of the properties were built before 2000, according to the Wall Street Journal’s review of census data and National Hurricane Center records.

And fixing them is more complicated than simply building a new home from scratch.

In Lee County, there’s been a backlash against bringing storm-damaged homes all the way up to the newest version of the code, a pricey endeavor that may involve elevating it several feet.

“Unfortunately, this is the clash of what’s affordable and what’s achievable and what’s ideal,” Chapman-Henderson said. “We do know how to build in the face of these disasters that cost millions of dollars. We have to maintain the will to do so on a consistent basis.”

Stronger homes, cheaper insurance

So would fortifying every single property in risky areas solve this problem? Not exactly, said Erdem Karaca, head of catastrophe perils in the Americas for Swiss Re and co-author of the report. While more and more homes and buildings are better prepared for storms, packing in a much higher volume of people just increases the number of chances something could go wrong.

Karaca points to the many pool screens destroyed on homes miles inland from Hurricane Ian. Yes, he said, the homes may have been in good shape, but all those little damages still add up, and they’re why wind is the number one threat from an insurance perspective, while storm surge remains the biggest threat to life.

“The more people live there, the more pools we have, it tallies up,” he said.

Insurance premiums are based, in part, on the risk in an entire area. So if that risk is constantly rising, the premiums will too.

But if enough homes and buildings are safe from storms, that could potentially drive down the risk, and therefore insurance costs, said Matt Junge, the head of property underwriting in the U.S. for Swiss Re.

“For insurance companies to provide insurance, they have to have confidence they’re going to predict what’s going to happen,” he said.

Junge said he was “optimistic” that Florida’s recent efforts to curtail another issue in the market, the glut of fraudulent lawsuits, was going to help bring premiums down eventually. And he said that the more Florida can strengthen its housing stock, the more that trend can continue.

“It’ll take some time,” he cautioned.

‘Just because you can doesn’t mean you should’

The report also took into account another factor affecting coastal storms in Florida – climate change.

Karaka and his co-author found that the increasingly warmer ocean, which is linked to stronger and wetter hurricanes, could have also played a role in making Hurricane Ian a worse storm than a similar one in 1970, when waters were cooler. And that impact, plus the massive population gains in Southwest Florida, significantly outweighs the last 20 years of stricter building practices.

That puts Florida’s coastline in the cross-hairs of even stronger storms in the future, with a whole lot more people there to experience them.

That gives Vivian Young, communications director for 1,000 Friends of Florida, a smart growth advocacy group, pause. She praised the state’s commitment to building better, but wondered how far that can really take us.

Storms don’t just impact homes, they rip up roads, crack water pipes and flood government buildings. Recovering from a storm comes at a high cost to taxpayers, both locally and federally. And in Florida, plenty of that risk is insured through public-run, deeply subsidized programs like Citizens, the state-run insurer of last resort.

“We’re kind of punting the problem down the road a bit,” she said. “Taxpayers are paying through Citizens or the National Flood Insurance Program for rebuilding in these vulnerable areas, but is that really the best option?”

Climate change is increasing the chances of stronger and more deadly storms, and sea level rise could permanently inundate swaths of Florida’s coastline, making it inconvenient and expensive to live there.

Young said the technology may be out there to help homes withstand even the strongest winds from a powerful hurricane, but the cost of insuring a home that weathers an extreme storm, or even moderate flooding, regularly could become too much for homeowners, or even banks.

“I think the state is reaching a tipping point and there’s going to have to be a really serious conversation about where it’s appropriate to develop, where we should be redeveloping and whether we should live in certain areas at all,” she said.

It’s like the old adage with new cutting-edge technology, she said.

“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”

© 2023 Miami Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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