Article Courtesy of USA TODAY
By Alan Gomez
Published August 13, 2017
Before Hurricane Katrina, before Superstorm Sandy, there was Hurricane Andrew.
The intense Category 5 hurricane, a compact buzzsaw that ripped the roofs off
thousands of South Florida homes 25 years ago, was so catastrophic that it led
to sweeping changes in the insurance industry, weather forecasting and disaster
And Floridians — shocked by acres of flattened houses — rewrote the state's
building codes, making them the toughest in the nation.
Now, as memories of the horrendous
destruction of Aug. 24, 1992, grow dim, the lessons learned
from Andrew may be fading, too. The building codes once
hailed as the gold standard other states should emulate are
At the core of that growing dispute is a simple calculation:
the tougher the building code, the more it costs to build a
Florida's codes dictate construction methods, require wind
testing and mandate extensive training and oversight for
inspectors. Those standards, home builders argue, can add
unnecessary costs that don't amount to a hurricane-proof
home. Insurers and home owners' associations say the tough
codes save money in the long run.
This year, alarm bells went up all over the state capital,
Tallahassee, when the Republican-led legislature and GOP
Gov. Rick Scott passed a new law that untethers Florida's
code from international standards and requires fewer votes
for the Florida Building Commission to make changes to the
Opponents said it opened the door for the commission, which
is dominated by home builders and contractors, to weaken the
Craig Fugate, the former head of the Federal Emergency
Management Agency, the federal agency that responds to
disasters, said Florida's latest move sickened him.
"I don't think builders are inherently evil people, but
you've got to look at what their business model is," said
Fugate, who led Florida's emergency management agency before
heading up FEMA. "The quicker they get to sell a home with
the least amount of cost and the least time delays increases
the money they make."
In this Aug. 24, 1992 file photo, a sailboat sits on
a sidewalk at Dinner Key in Miami after it was washed ashore by
Hurricane Andrew. Several days after it almost dissipated, Andrew
rapidly strengthened and was a Category 4 storm at landfall in
Homestead, Fla. The Hurricane Center measured a peak wind gust of
Republican leaders and the state's home builders say such concerns are
overblown. Jeremy Stewart, a Crestview, Fla., developer and president of the
Florida Home Builders Association, noted that the bill passed in Tallahassee
did not change a single building code. Instead, he said, it simply
modernized the process for updating the code.
There's no reason, he said, to think developers will use the new process to
weaken the state's building codes, and bristled at the suggestion that
builders simply seek to cut costs.
"That's absolutely false and misleading," Stewart said. "There's not a
single contractor that I know of in the state of Florida that does not want
to be operating under the most stringent code, that's not concerned with the
well-being of our customers."
A building boom and haphazard codes
For Florida's builders and building officials, life could be defined as
"before Andrew" and "after Andrew."
The Florida peninsula juts straight into the tropical storm-prone area of
the Atlantic known as "hurricane alley." Before Andrew, South Florida hadn't
suffered a direct strike from a major hurricane since Hurricane King in
1950, said Michael Goolsby, director of building code administration for
Year after year, hurricanes swept by, either slipping up the East Coast or
falling apart in the Gulf of Mexico. "That's more than 40 years," Goolsby
said. "That brings about a certain level of complacency."
Meanwhile, construction boomed and the state's population swelled. To curb
haphazard home building, local governments created building codes, but they
varied from county to county.
"I've heard stories that there were up to 26 codes that were being used,"
What codes did exist were frequently ignored. Ricardo Alvarez, a former
state and federal building inspector, said contractors cut corners as the
storm drought dragged on. Instead of using sturdier plywood under roofs,
they used a cheaper, flimsier version of particle board. Instead of using
roofing nails, they used staples.
Then, Andrew hit.
Its 145 mph winds tore apart the working-class suburb of Homestead, reducing
entire city blocks to rubble. Debris torn from roofs or lifted from the
ground turned into deadly projectiles, smashing windows and impaling people.
The numbers were staggering: 25,524 homes destroyed, another 101,241 damaged
and more than 40 people killed, according to the National Hurricane Center.
All told, Andrew led to $24.5 billion in insured losses, the costliest
disaster in U.S. history at the time. Only Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the
terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, cost more, according to the Insurance
Information Institute. Andrew's costs were so high that 11 insurance
companies went bankrupt.
Andrew forced Florida leaders to examine disaster response, insurance laws
and evacuation procedures. The legislature created a state catastrophe fund,
which now stands at $17.6 billion, to help cover losses from hurricanes.
Lawmakers created Citizens Property Insurance Corp., a not-for-profit,
government-run insurance company that covers more than 470,000 homeowners
who can't find insurance on the private market. And the state changed its
procedures for evacuations, communication during disasters and the role of
They took the hardest look at the building codes. Why, they wondered, did
thousands of roofs lift from their houses?
Investigators founds dozens of flaws but zeroed in on gables, the triangular
areas of a house that sit on top of a masonry wall and under an arched roof.
Gables could be made from wood at the time, which investigators realized had
created a glaring weakness easily exploited by hurricane-force winds. When
water and wind got through the gable, the wind could lift up the entire roof
or whip through the house, blowing out windows and doors.
"When the wind came along, these gables folded in like a hinge," Goolsby
Andrew drives a new approach
Over the next decade, state leaders studied construction standards,
negotiated with home builders, and finally, unveiled a statewide, mandatory
building code that took effect in 2002.
The lessons of Andrew drove many of the building code changes. Inspectors
now had to approve building plans and sign off on all phases of new
construction. The entire "building envelope" of a home — every window, door,
skylight or any point that could let in wind — had to undergo testing and
The first major test of Florida's new standards came in 2004, 12 years after
Hurricane Andrew. That year, four hurricanes — Charley, Frances, Ivan and
Jeanne — walloped the state in one hurricane season. The newer homes, built
under the tough code, survived.
A report from FEMA found that homes built after the codes were put into
place performed better than the older stock. A separate report from the
Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety found that owners of
post-Andrew homes filed 60% fewer insurance claims and the severity of those
claims was 42% lower.
"That is not a marginal change," said Julie Rochman, CEO and president of
the institute. "The codes proved themselves out beautifully."
Florida scales back
Rather than embrace the success of the new codes, however, the state started
walking them back.
The Florida Building Commission — a 25-member board appointed by the
governor that includes builders, engineers and inspectors — analyzed data
from the four storms and decided to recalibrate how much wind a Florida home
would need to withstand.
“The general feeling was that in 2005 we were over-designing," Jack Glenn,
the retired director of technical services for the Florida Home Builders
Association told the Miami Herald. “We needed to relax a bit because there
is a cost impact.’’
Different areas of the state receive different winds on average. The lower
the wind, the lower the building requirements. After the 2004 season, state
officials redrew the maps. The state increased the wind loads in one area —
South Florida — but reduced them by 20% in much of the rest of the state.
Jacksonville, on Florida's northeast coast, largely spared by the four
hurricanes, saw its wind loads reduced as much as 35%.
Further tweaks to the code led to a startling change in 2015. The insurance
institute that had praised Florida for its 2004 hurricane season performance
and its tough building code downgraded the state's code from the top spot to
second place, behind Virginia.
This year, builders pushed for even bigger changes.
States around the country base their building codes on those developed by
the International Code Council (ICC). The council examines the latest
technology and uses experts from around the country to update its codes
every three years.
Florida had timed its process to the ICC updates. Every three years, the
state would adopt the new ICC codes. The Florida Building Commission would
remove portions that didn't affect Florida, such as standards for roof-top
snow accumulation, and add Florida-specific provisions, such as strict
But during the legislative session this year, legislators pushed for big
changes. One proposal called for state officials to freeze the code as it
stands, with only occasional updates. Another proposal called for a six-year
cycle of updates instead of three.
Leslie Chapman-Henderson remembers Andrew vividly. She managed
Andrew-related insurance claims for Allstate. The legislature's direction
"We were watching these bills fly out of committees unanimously and we’re
thinking, ‘This is not good,' " said Chapman-Henderson, who is now president
of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes.
The negotiations ended with a compromise. Florida's building codes would
still be updated every three years, but they would no longer adopt the ICC
codes. Instead, Florida would keep its current code and pick and choose
which parts of the ICC code to adopt.
The law also reduced the number of votes required for the state's building
commission to change the building codes. Now a code change requires just
two-thirds of the board to support the change rather than 75%. That worries
Fugate, the former FEMA director, who said the commission is already stacked
in favor of builders and contractors, who account for 10 members of the
Kerri Wyland, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Scott, said the law reduces
"burdensome regulations while maintaining Florida's gold standard of safety
and innovation through an efficient and effective building code adoption
Jimi Grande, senior vice president of the National Association of Mutual
Insurance Companies, fears state officials will cherry-pick which
technologies to adopt and which to ignore. Grande said insurers are very
nervous about that change, which could lead to higher premiums for Florida
"What they are doing is tying themselves to a new system that won't keep up
with science and technology," Grande said. "That's what's scary about it."
The 2017 hurricane season ends Nov. 30 and the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration has predicted as many as 19 named storms could
develop in the waters around the United States. As always, Florida is in the
crosshairs. That has Chapman-Henderson worried.
"We are still in a state of shock that the most hurricane-prone state in the
country would retreat from its world class building code system," she said.
"Florida was the good child. Now they're on the path that led to the
failures of Hurricane Andrew."