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Hurricane Irma to Test New Codes Put in Place After Andrew

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 9/8/2017 Arian Campo-Flores, Cameron McWhirter, Peter Grant
© Uncredited/Associated Press

MIAMI—After Hurricane Andrew pummeled Florida 25 years ago and leveled entire blocks of homes, local and state officials responded by creating some of the strictest building codes in the U.S., hailed by many as a model.

Florida adopted a new statewide building code in 2002 that included a host of new requirements, including the use of stronger roof fasteners, nails instead of staples and impact-resistant windows in certain areas. It increased the amount of wind pressure homes must withstand and added more-detailed and rigorous inspections of building plans.

With Hurricane Irma—among the strongest Atlantic storms in history—closing in on South Florida, those regulations could face their toughest test yet.

More is at risk than when Andrew hit in 1992—Florida’s population has grown more than 50% to 20.6 million and real-estate development has boomed. Housing units in Miami-Dade County increased 30% from 1990 to nearly 1 million in 2015 according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The county’s population has swelled in tandem, to 2.65 million in 2015 from 1.94 million in 1990—a 37% increase.

A hurricane like Irma “is something we have been fearing for a long time,” said Ned Murray, associate director of the Metropolitan Center at Florida International University.

CoreLogic Inc., a financial and property data analytics company, calculates that there are more than 2.7 million homes at risk along 1,350 miles of Florida’s coast, according to a 2017 report. The metropolitan area encompassing Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach had the greatest number of homes at risk of any of the 15 regions CoreLogic analyzed. The coastal area of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania ranks second.

Andrew was the largest storm to hit South Florida directly in recent decades. The Category 5 storm came ashore south of Miami, crossing Biscayne Bay. Andrew killed 61 people in the U.S., and caused more than $26 billion in damage, in 1992 dollars—the costliest storm in U.S. history until Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It destroyed more than 25,500 homes and damaged more than 101,000 others, according to a National Hurricane Center assessment.

In the aftermath, many blamed shoddy home construction for the broad destruction, resulting in pressure to create more exacting building codes which promoted the statewide push to strengthen the building code.

Related video: Hurricane Irma devastates Caribbean Islands


A study by the Institute for Business and Home Safety of the effects of Hurricane Charley, which hit Charlotte County, Fla., in 2004, found that the changes made a difference. Homes built after the new code was implemented had fewer and less-severe insurance claims than those built before, according to the report.

Groups like the International Code Council, which develops model building codes, have hailed Florida’s regulations as some of the strongest in the country and said they make the state more resilient in the event of a major storm.

But the new building code hasn’t been tested by a storm comparable to Andrew until possibly Irma, said Peter Zalewski, principal at Cranespotters, which tracks new construction in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

“South Florida will be a laboratory for the new building code,” he said.

Among Miami’s requirements is one that any material on the outside of a building—glass, metal, assemblages—has to pass a ballistics test to make sure it won’t be shattered by flying debris, said Lloyd Sigal, a principal of architecture firm Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates. His firm is designing a new project for downtown Miami, called One Bayfront Plaza, which will rise 1,000 feet to be one of Miami’s tallest towers.

“What they test for is flying two-by-fours at certain velocities,” Mr. Sigal said. He said glass in Miami towers also must be laminated all the way to the top of the building, whereas previously it was only required for about 30 feet to 40 feet, he said.

To stand up to high winds, building cores and other bracing must use more concrete than comparable structures in areas that aren’t prone to hurricanes. “They’re designed for very aggressive loads,” he said.

Still, the code can only do so much to mitigate damage. The region is beset by poor drainage and lacks a comprehensive system to clear out water like other metropolitan areas have, Florida International University’s Mr. Murray said.

Inland areas of Miami-Dade and Broward counties, which are close to sea level, could experience severe flooding from a major storm, he said.

“If we even get half the rain that Houston got, those areas would be really inundated,” he said.

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Moreover, the breakneck pace of growth in the region has burdened the area’s roads and other infrastructure with more people and traffic, he said. And poorer neighborhoods in Miami, such as Liberty City and Little Haiti, are still full of homes that were never upgraded to the stricter building rules.

Homestead, a city south of Miami that was devastated by a direct hit from Andrew, highlights the state’s expansion in the subsequent 25 years.

When the storm struck, then-city manager Alex Muxo emerged from city hall to find only three or four buildings left standing in the area. Where a shopping center once sat across the street, “there wasn’t one brick left,” he said.

After years of rebuilding fueled by federal, state and private investment, Homestead has bounced back. The once quiet agricultural town has a new city hall, a recently restored art deco theater and a proliferation of strip malls and housing tracts. Homestead’s population grew to nearly 68,000 in 2016 from about 28,500 in 1990, according to census data.

It was “a tremendous challenge,” said Mr. Muxo, now a vice president for Huizenga Holdings Inc., an investment company with commercial and residential investments around Florida. “It took 15 or 20 years, but you can take a snapshot today and it’s a big difference.”

Write to Arian Campo-Flores at, Cameron McWhirter at and Peter Grant at


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