Anyone who was in Panama City, Fla., last year when Hurricane Michael hit has a story to tell. Christina Harding rode out the storm with her mother, daughter and two nephews. “It was crazy,” she says. “We had to tie the door shut because Michael was trying to come into the house with us, which was not what we wanted. It was like bam, bam, bam, bam. Like somebody trying to get in, you know?”
When she stepped outside after the storm, Harding says, it looked like a bomb had gone off. Pointing across the road, one guy’s house “was just completely caved in on the backside,” she says. “We saw these trailers coming apart across the road.”
Harding lost some fencing and a window from flying debris. But otherwise, her house was largely fine. She expected it would be because she helped build it with Habitat for Humanity and knew how strong it was.
Many others weren’t as fortunate. Margo Anderson, the mayor of Lynn Haven, Fla., a small community next door to Panama City says her city had 254 houses “wiped off the earth.” Anderson says some of old homes dating back to the city’s founding came through the hurricane. But some of the more recent construction couldn’t stand up to Michael’s sustained high winds. She says some houses built in the “hurricane preventative times” with trusses and windows that weren’t supposed to come out didn’t fare very well.
On Florida’s panhandle, communities are still struggling to recover from Hurricane Michael and many are uneasy about the beginning of another hurricane season. Michael was a category 5 hurricane with 160-mile-per-hour winds that shredded thousands of houses in Panama City and surrounding areas. It’s an area that’s long had some of Florida’s weakest building codes.
After the last category 5 hurricane hit Florida, nearly 30 years ago, the state revamped its building code. This time, Leslie Chapman-Henderson, who heads the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, says there’s been little movement in that direction. “After Hurricane Michael,” she says, “one would expect that the policy direction would be toward adopting stronger codes. We have not seen that to be the case.”
A bill was introduced earlier this year in Florida’s legislature included a directive to strengthen the state’s building code. It died in committee after two hearings.
A decade after Hurricane Andrew, Florida adopted a statewide construction code that established minimum wind speeds buildings would have to withstand. But until 2008, much of the panhandle, including Panama City was granted an exception to the code. Chapman-Henderson says that exception proved costly. “If we had not had that in place for seven years,” she says, “the homes that just hit by Michael last year would have been so much stronger. But they weren’t because of short-sighted policy.”
Although that policy was eventually changed, wind speed standards along the panhandle are still lower than in many other parts of the state. One reason for that is that the region had never experienced a major hurricane — until Michael.
One builder on the panhandle that has always gone well beyond the minimum requirements of the construction code is Habitat for Humanity. The executive director of Habitat for Humanity in Bay County, Lance Rettig says the impetus for that comes from the group’s insistence on building homes “habitat strong.”
Habitat’s construction manager in Bay County, Ross Potts, says in Hurricane Michael, “Our houses did really well in part due to our hipped roofs,” referring to roofs that slope downward. “So there was nothing for the wind to grab and rip off. The steel on the roof was also key. Shingles were blowing off everywhere but our steel stayed in place.”
Habitat is currently building two new homes in Panama City. Potts says relatively simple construction techniques make their homes resistant to hurricane-force winds. “There’s thicker plywood on the roof … holding the steel on.” Screws, not nails are used on the roof and to fasten windows to the walls. Habitat also uses more “go bolts” — long, threaded rods that connect the roof beams to the home’s foundation.
It takes a bit more time, but doesn’t cost that much more. Rettig says, “The difference is maybe $1,000. You know, it’s twice as many nails, a little bit of an upgrade in wood and go bolts that are incrementally not that much of a difference.” Using steel on the roof instead of shingles, he says, can add an additional $2,000-3,000 to the cost of a home.