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Clearwater needs to fix codes, homes now

We were lucky that Andrew, with its 145 mph winds, didn't hit Clearwater. My sympathy goes to the people whose lives, homes, businesses and jobs were destroyed. A hurricane like Andrew reminds us how helpless we are against the enormous power of nature. So do the tornadoes that recently ripped through mid-Pinellas.

Andrew will not be the last killer storm to threaten us. We know that, and we should be wise enough to be prepared. Maybe Andrew taught us a lesson. Maybe we'll change our ways and avoid a repetition of such horrible enormity, the destruction of a whole community.

Another Andrew could hit Clearwater next. And I believe we'd suffer the same fate as South Florida. Or worse.

When my wife and I settled here 20 years ago, we bought a condominium in a waterfront high-rise. Our apartment was beautifully laid out, one floor below the penthouse. We were delighted . . . until the heavy summer rains began. The roof leaked, flooding the penthouse. Rainwater dripped through our ceiling.

Patching the roof didn't help. Nor would pursuing the roofer, who had gone out of business. That left only us, the condo owners, to pay for the repairs.

Fixing the roof wasn't the end of our problems. During heavy rains, water also seeped through the walls. And the glass in our windows was so thin that it bent under the pressure of a 25-mph wind. Again, each apartment owner had to pay for the repairs.

In 1978, we moved to a new home, a townhouse in a large condo community in Clearwater. I joined the board responsible for the maintenance of the 48 units. Some units had flat roofs, others shingled pitched roofs. It did not take long before the flat ones started to leak. Roofers we consulted told us the roofing paper was inadequate _ it was only two-plies thick instead of the recommended three.

Looking for justice, I made a visit to the City Hall office in charge of building inspections. The man I met was very cooperative. When I asked him who had supervised the building of our condos, he smiled and told me he was one of two inspectors responsible for new construction in the entire city of Clearwater. They did not have time to check every building going up.

Eventually, after the threat of a lawsuit, the builder paid us $77,000 for repair of the flat roofs.

Ten years after the buildings had gone up, the shingles of the pitched roofs started to fall apart. They were under warranty for 15 years. The builders would not tell us who had supplied the shingles. By taking a sample around to various dealers, we learned the name of the manufacturer and approached him. After lengthy discussions, he gave us new shingles for all the buildings. We had to pay for the labor. The repairs of both roofs were done without the supervision of the city.

But on another occasion, the city shone. A few months ago, we replaced our air-conditioning system. From the minute the work began, two permit forms were taped to our front window. We were told we had to leave them there until the installation was approved by an inspector. It took about two months until the man appeared. He was very knowledgeable and found five faults. They were corrected the next day and the inspector came promptly and approved the work.

We're not the only ones with problems. Most of our friends have gone through something similar. A couple we know lives in a high-rise condominium on Island Estates where all balconies had to be repaired. The old ones had become a hazard. Each owner was assessed from $2,500 to $2,900, depending on the size of the apartment. The question is, who had approved and supervised the original construction? Imagine the damage falling balconies could have caused during a hurricane.

At a high-rise condominium in downtown Clearwater, the entire outside of the building had to be replaced! Each condo owner was assessed anywhere from $28,000 to $36,000. Imagine again the damage to the residents of this building had Andrew passed over our city.

And what if you don't have the money to pay the assessment and the bank would not give you a mortgage? A lien would probably be put against your property.

I spoke to Dick Chodora of the Clearwater Building Inspection Division, who freely answered all my questions. He told me he has an adequate staff to handle the current work load, but it was not enough during the building boom.

I questioned him about the two plies of paper on our roofs. He consulted the code book and told me there is no regulation for the number of plies on a flat roof. The amount depends on the quality of the material as specified by the manufacturer. In other words, the manufacturer can specify whatever pleases the builder to make a sale. Obviously, somebody should classify this material and issue guidelines.

I have not seen the code book for new buildings and probably would not understand most of it. But judging from the roofs alone, a revision must be necessary, particularly in view of the damage Andrew caused in South Florida and to prevent a similar catastrophe in our city.

We learn from news reports that many homeowners in South Florida are seeking recourse from builders for shoddy construction. We should have our homes inspected now for any possible code violations before another Andrew comes along.

Maybe the builders in our area will learn from this, and eliminate the shortcuts some of them use to make their houses more salable or profitable. There should also be a knowledgeable committee to study our codes and make changes where necessary.

We cannot stop hurricanes; they will keep on coming. But we can be prepared to save lives and property during such a calamity.

Paul Friedhoff, 85, is a Clearwater retiree.