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Building inspectors take a closer look

Port Richey builder Ken Russ says he hadn't gotten a red tag from building inspectors for three years _ until Hurricane Andrew came along.

The one he got recently held up construction of a house for two weeks while he fixed "every little thing," Russ said. A red tag flags a problem that has to be corrected before a house can pass inspection, and Russ thinks inspectors are quicker than ever to hand them out.

"They're enforcing the books much more strictly," he said.

"I'm not sure if inspectors are giving out more red tags, but I'm sure they're looking over structures more carefully," said Pasco County building official Robert Des Rosier. "Every county in Florida is really looking at their inspections."

Hurricane Andrew put building materials and building codes through the ultimate stress test, shattering windows, ripping off roofs and collapsing walls. More than 135,000 houses were damaged or destroyed.

Some experts who surveyed the damage blamed roofing materials such as staples that were used in place of nails and particle board that replaced plywood. Others put more emphasis on shoddy construction, such as placing nails or staples too far apart when attaching plywood to roof trusses.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, in a preliminary report, said a shortage of adequately trained inspectors contributed to the problem.

"Everybody is much more alert to those things that were problems in South Florida," said Pinellas County building director Robert Pensa. "Builders themselves are trying to find out what the problems were and make them better. I'm sure they're putting more nails in roofs now."

However, the county decided to start checking just in case. Pinellas building inspectors now climb up on every roof and check the nails, while Pasco inspectors do spot checks.

Many other counties also have started roof inspections since Hurricane Andrew, said Mary Kathryn Smith, program manager for the Florida Department of Community Affairs. But some, including Hillsborough, still aren't convinced they are necessary.

"The Standard Building Code outlines five mandated inspections and that's what we do," said Hillsborough County construction manager David Jones. "If you go up on the roof and look, how can you know if the nails are in the trusses or how long they are? I don't think it serves any useful purpose."

Dade County took emergency action to toughen its building code, outlawing staples and particle board in roofs and requiring heavier roofing felt. However, other counties are moving more slowly.

"People are still trying to figure out what went wrong and what amendment to the code would fix it," said William J. Owens, executive director of the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, which sets code requirements in Pinellas County.

A state-appointed team of experts meets later this month to review the hurricane damage and recommend changes in building codes. Its final report is due by the end of the year and is likely to result in one or more bills that will be considered by the Legislature next year, Smith said.

Current state law allows cities and counties to choose among several approved building codes and then to adopt stricter standards if they wish.

In the Tampa Bay area, the prevailing code is the Standard Building Code, which is the work of the Southern Building Code Congress in Birmingham, Ala.

Changes in the Standard Building Code must go through a lengthy process. Next October would be the earliest that any changes could be incorporated in that code.

In the meantime, inspectors are taking a bit more care to see that existing codes are followed.

There's been a change in attitude because the hurricane showed inspectors how important their job is, said Daniel Schmelzinger, director of construction and code services for the city of St. Petersburg. "This kind of thing jogs you and says this (inspection) really makes a significant difference," he said.

_ Staff writer Kim Norris contributed to this report.