Building heftier homes in storm-prone South

Coastal states are debating whether codes should be toughened to

When James Ebling purchased his house a few years ago he couldn't have cared less about the pre-fitted metal storm panels the builder had stacked in his new garage.

But last week, with hurricane Floyd swirling off the East Coast of Florida, those same steel shutters that protect windows and glass doors from flying debris were suddenly worth their weight in gold.

"If you have to go through this once a year, I guess it is worth it to protect your family and belongings," Mr. Ebling says, wiping the sweat from his forehead as he carries the shutters back into his garage.

Ebling is the beneficiary of a policy adopted in south Florida requiring all new homes built since hurricane Andrew in 1992 to include pre-fitted storm shutters.

The building code adopted in south Florida is the strongest in the nation, and officials here point to the $25 billion devastation of Andrew as proof of its necessity.

But others aren't convinced. A statewide building commission is studying whether identical provisions should be enacted all along the hurricane-prone Florida coast. A similar study is under way in North Carolina, which has received more than its share of direct hits from major storms in recent years, including Floyd. And a proposed national building code, approved last week at a conference in St. Louis, will likely spark similar studies in states from Texas to Virginia.

At issue is whether state and local governments should do more to protect homes and homeowners from hurricane-force winds.

In south Florida, beefed-up code provisions include requirements that houses be constructed of more sturdy materials, such as reinforced garage doors and storm-resistant shingles. But a key question centers on whether to require home builders to provide all new homeowners with pre-fitted storm shutters.

Home builders argue that such a requirement will raise the cost of housing, pricing some buyers out of the American dream. And they say that just because a home is fitted with shutters doesn't mean the owner will use them during a hurricane.

Insurance agents and the major insurance companies counter that storm shutters can significantly increase the chances of a home surviving a hurricane, which would also cut down on storm-related insurance claims. They say the extra cost of providing shutters isn't significant when added to a 30-year mortgage.

"It isn't just a question of property damage and keeping insurance rates low, it is a question of people's lives," says Scott Johnson of the Association of Florida Insurance Agents.

But rather than requiring builders to provide shutters to new homeowners, insurers should create economic incentives for customers to not only have shutters in the garage, but actually use them, says Edwin Henry, president of the Florida Home Builders' Association.

"If they would do that, you would see more people make the decision to put shutters on their home, and more people would invest in shutters that are easier to install," Mr. Henry says.

Storm shutters aren't cheap. Roll-down shutters that can be closed electronically can cost many thousands of dollars per window. Steel panels that fit over windows often run $100 or more per window. And half-inch plywood can cost $10 to $20 per window. In addition, storm panels and plywood are heavy and difficult to install, particularly on second-story windows.

On the plus side, structural engineers agree that a house stands a much better chance of surviving hurricane-force winds if all windows, doors, and the garage door are covered or reinforced in some way.

"The minute a window or door blows out, the inside of the building tends to blow up like a balloon. The shutters tend to inhibit that from happening," says William Tangye, head of Southern Building Code Congress International, which maintains the building code used throughout most of the Southeast. Once high wind enters a house, it can literally blow the roof off a poorly constructed home.

On the other hand, experts say, some houses have survived significant hurricane-force winds without shutters. Builders stress that if good construction materials and methods are used houses can stand up to hurricanes.

In remains unclear how the hurricane shutter issue will be resolved in Florida and North Carolina.

The Florida Building Commission is set to hear testimony in Miami this Wednesday. Sam Miller of the Florida Insurance Council says he's bringing to the hearing a large satellite photo of a Texas-sized hurricane Floyd. "We think Floyd demonstrates that you need these tough [building code] standards everywhere in Florida," Mr. Miller says.

By some estimates, if Floyd had veered into Florida, it might have caused $60 billion in damage. Insurance officials say mandatory shutters would dramatically reduce that risk.

Henry says a shutter policy that only focuses on new homes would do little to protect residents. New homes account for 1.2 percent of the housing stock. An incentive program aimed at all homeowners would have a greater impact, he says.

If the debate was up to the residents of Ebling's neighborhood here in south Florida, a shutter policy of some sort would be overwhelmingly approved.

With only a handful of exceptions, virtually the entire 300-home Sawgrass Preserve subdivision installed their storm shutters last week in preparation for Floyd.

"This was one of the main reasons I chose this house," says Alan Bridgelall, motioning toward the shutters still covering his living room window.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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