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Storm plan excludes most homes along coast

A proposal by the panel crafting a building code would require window safety features, but only in four southeast Florida counties.

The commission creating Florida's first statewide building code on Monday was given a choice by one of its own members:

Require hurricane protections on all coastal homes or hope the next hurricane will take "an automatic right turn at the Martin County Line and go seaward."

Otherwise, suggested commissioner Steven P. Bassett, a hurricane hitting anywhere but southeast Florida will cause untold damage.

Bassett was worried about a proposal to require certain hurricane safety features only in Dade, Broward, Monroe and Palm Beach counties. Under that proposal, homes in the rest of coastal Florida, including virtually all of Pinellas County, would be vulnerable.

Despite Bassett's warning, the commission approved the proposal, reserving the option to tinker with it later.

In other action, the commission approved a measure that will strengthen the tall walls of gable roof homes, so they will better withstand hurricane-force winds. The weakness of those gable end walls was described in the St. Petersburg Times on June 27. The recommendation to strengthen the walls was an outgrowth of the newspaper's report.

That measure was adopted without conflict, unlike the one Bassett addressed.

The proposal he criticized is based on a national construction standard, called ASCE 7, requiring coastal homes to have shutters or break-resistant glass, or to be designed to withstand much higher wind pressure than is required by current building codes. The national engineering standard takes into account that high winds turn tree limbs, roof tiles and other debris into missiles that shatter windows. Once the wind gets into the house, the pressures rise dramatically.

But, unlike the national standard, the proposal adopted Monday requires those hurricane safety features only in four counties.

That's appropriate, says Wellington Meffert, director of governmental affairs for the Florida Home Builders Association. Window protection may not be needed outside southeast Florida, he suggested.

When Hurricane Opal hit the Florida Panhandle in 1995, "there was virtually no windborne debris damage," Meffert said. "In northeast Florida, there has been no heavy storm in 83 years."

The home buyer should choose whether to add the window protections or use a sturdier house design, he said. People should be able to decide "what is within their financial ability to buy," he said.

Pete Billing, who served as an adviser to the building code commission, said shutters or window coatings add about $2,500 to the cost of an average house. By adopting a plan to require safety features only in southeast Florida, "you will be telling the world that a family and all their belongings outside southeast Florida are not worth $2,500," Billing said.

One building code commissioner questioned whether requiring window protection would encourage a false sense of security in home owners and tempt them to ride out a storm at home.

But Andy Martinez, representing Nationwide Insurance Companies, noted that "in some areas of the state, you cannot evacuate everyone in three days."

"There will be people who have to find refuge in a house," he said. Consequently, the state has "an absolute duty to make sure the house can withstand 120-mph winds."

Do Kim, representing the insurance industry's Institute for Business and Home Safety, asked how the state would distinguish between the jeopardy faced by South Florida and that faced by the rest of coastal Florida.

"What about the three-quarters of Florida residents who live along the coast?" Kim asked. "Do we say you're not good enough to deserve the protections of South Florida? When the next hurricane hits and families are ripped away and their possessions are ripped away, they're going to ask if their government provided them the best protection."

Even though they adopted the proposal that restricts window safety measures to South Florida, commissioners said the measure can be amended later. For now, it will be part of the second version of the proposed statewide building code that will be presented for public debate throughout the state.

Also open to public discussion will be the measure strengthening gable end walls. Jeffrey Stone, who proposed the measure, hopes it will reduce the gable wall failure seen in Hurricane Andrew in 1992. In a concrete block home, gable walls are hybrids _ concrete block on the bottom and wood on the peaked top.

The joint of wood and concrete forms a hinge that is weak in the wind. In a five-month investigation, the Times found that most gable homes built outside South Florida since 1992 likely fail to meet existing building codes because they weren't designed to overcome the hinge effect.

Stone's measure, which was accepted by the building code commission Monday, could reduce or eliminate the wall's weakness.

Hip vs. gable roofs

In a HIP design, each of the roof's four sides slope downward and attach to the wall. Because it is braced on all four sides, and doesn't to present a flat surface to the wind, a hip roof is inherently stronger than a gable roof.

Gable roof

The GABLE design has two weaknesses. Because a gable wall is flat, the wind hits it head-on. The problem is compounded by the way the gable wall is typically built. The top is wood; the bottom is concrete. Those two wall sections are tied together with metal straps, so the wall is literally hinged in the middle.