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Could Tampa Bay homes survive a Category 5 storm? Building codes may provide an answer.

Building codes dictate standards for new construction projects, but they do not apply to existing buildings.
Destroyed building materials remain scattered at the Sunnyland Trailer Court on San Carlos Island at the base of the Matanzas Pass Bridge on Wednesday, Oct 5, 2022, which was mostly destroyed after Hurricane Ian made landfall last week.
Destroyed building materials remain scattered at the Sunnyland Trailer Court on San Carlos Island at the base of the Matanzas Pass Bridge on Wednesday, Oct 5, 2022, which was mostly destroyed after Hurricane Ian made landfall last week. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Oct. 10, 2022|Updated Oct. 12, 2022

A man swimming in his dining room. An entire house floating down the street after being uprooted from its foundation. Pieces of vinyl siding and shingles littering the streets.

Faced with images of buildings that were ripped apart by Hurricane Ian just hours south of Tampa Bay, many residents here are left wondering: “Would my home have survived?”

The answer may depend heavily on when it was built.

The year 1992 was a turning point for building safety in Florida, said Kevin Garriott, building official for the city of Clearwater. After Hurricane Andrew ripped through the state that year, causing an estimated $26 billion in damage, building codes were overhauled to include stricter storm safety measures. The first statewide building code went into effect in 2002 and is updated every three years.

Building codes dictate standards for new construction projects, but they do not apply to existing buildings. Even if a building is not up to code, Garriott said most structures built after Andrew include sturdier materials and more resilient roof tie-downs.

Some Florida cities ravaged by natural disasters have had to undergo wide-scale rebuilding efforts in recent years.

Punta Gorda, which was hit hard by Hurricane Charley in 2004, fared better after Hurricane Ian than surrounding cities with older buildings, according to reporting from The Washington Post. “Charley was almost like a spring cleaning event,” Joe Schortz, a resident of Punta Gorda and owner of a local construction and remodeling business, told The Post. “Charley destroyed a lot of the older homes with the winds.”

Tampa Bay, on the other hand, has managed to avoid a major hurricane for the past century.

“This presents us with a greater proportion of older buildings that will sustain damage in the event of a major hurricane,” said Joshua Bomstein, president of Creative Contractors. Still, he added that the older housing stock may be offset by the rapid growth in the region, which has brought plenty of new construction as well.

Newer doesn’t always mean better, though.

Structures destroyed by Hurricane Ian remain on Fort Myers Beach on Tuesday, Oct 4, 2022.
Structures destroyed by Hurricane Ian remain on Fort Myers Beach on Tuesday, Oct 4, 2022. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“Maintenance plays a huge role,” said Garriott. A building constructed five years ago that’s been completely neglected may fare much worse than one built 50 years ago that’s been kept in impeccable shape.

There are several ways to retrofit older buildings and bring them up to code — adding modern doors and windows, replacing the roof, fortifying the existing frame with concrete and steel. Still, these improvements can be costly and time-consuming. They also only account for damage caused by hurricane-force winds, not storm surge flooding.

Rather than trying to address the problem on an individual basis, Jason Jensen, principal of Wannemacher Jensen Architects and incoming chairperson for the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, said local governments need to explore community-wide solutions.

This could include large infrastructural projects, like installing seawalls or raising roads. It could also mean providing incentives for owners to redevelop.

“If your building was built 50 years ago, what would make you want to rebuild?” he said. “Is it allowing you to do more on the site if you build new? Or giving you a tax break if you build new?”

Building safety is as much about where you build as how you build, said Robert MacLeod, director of the School of Architecture & Community Design at the University of South Florida.

Buildings located on the water or directly in the floodplain face the greatest threat. As climate change poses an increasing risk to coastal communities, MacLeod said, municipalities and developers in Florida need to seriously reconsider building in these areas.

“I don’t think we can rely on building codes to solve this problem,” he said. “We have to build with a certain respect for the reality of the environment. Nature is undefeated. It has never lost and it won’t.”

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Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Ian coverage

HOW TO HELP: Where to donate or volunteer to help Hurricane Ian victims.

FEMA: Floridians hurt by Ian can now apply for FEMA assistance. Here’s how.

THE STORM HAS PASSED: Now what? Safety tips for returning home.

POST-STORM QUESTIONS: After Hurricane Ian, how to get help with fallen trees, food, damaged shelter.

WEATHER EFFECTS: Hurricane Ian was supposed to slam Tampa Bay head on. What happened?

MORE STORM COVERAGE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.