Coastal states have been tweaking their building codes for decades and demanding that new construction meet the new code. Gulf coast cities, though, aren’t as demanding as those on the Atlantic side, becasue hurricanes aren’t supposed to be as strong in the gulf. Hurricane Michael, though, will change that view.
Mexico Beach, Florida may have suffered the worst of the devastation. Many of the homes and buildings in the blocks surrounding the beach were leveled to their foundations. In the ruins, though, there is one house that came through the storm with almost no damage.
“As they built their dream house last year on the shimmering sands of the Gulf of Mexico, Russell King and his nephew, Dr. Lebron Lackey, painstakingly documented every detail of the elevated construction, from the 40-foot pilings buried into the ground to the types of screws drilled into the walls,” The New York Times writes. “They picked gleaming paints from a palette of shore colors, chose salt-tolerant species to plant in the beach dunes and christened their creation the Sand Palace of Mexico Beach.”
The owners of the house were 400 miles away when the storm hit. They watched on security cameras as the hurricane hit the house. “It would buck like an airplane wing,” Dr. Lackey said of the house’s roof. “I kept expecting to see it tear off.”
The house held together.
“We wanted to build it for the big one,” Lackey said. “We just never knew we’d find the big one so fast.”
The house was built to withstand a strong category five storm. The pillars on which the house is built hold the house high above possible storm surge. Both details make it somewhat unique.
“Florida’s building code, put into effect in 2002, is famously stringent when it comes to windstorm resistance for homes built along the hurricane-prone Atlantic shoreline,” the Times notes. “But it is less so for structures along the Panhandle, a region historically unaffected by storms as strong as the ones that have slammed into South Florida.”
The last house standing has been assessed at a value of $400,000. It probably cost much more than that to build, though the owners haven’t disclosed those figures. Building to such an intense code is estimated to cost about twice what it would cost to meet the lower standards that are currently in place in the Florida panhandle.
At the heart of this matter is a philosophy of permanence. Many homes are built knowing they will not withstand a storm. Owners rent these properties, and have insurance to cover loss of income from the rentals. And the homeowners insurance itself will cover catastrophic loss, allowing them to be rebuilt.
Away from the beach, though, and for permanent residents of the coast, the loss is more meaningful.
“Every time something like this happens, you have to say to yourself, ‘Is there something we can do better?’” Gov. Rick Scott told reporters.
Part of that message has to do with those who decide to ride out the storm. While many of the beach houses stood empty, a few blocks in from the water, where the locals typically live, is a different story.
“When I saw this hurricane’s wind speeds, I knew: You could only hope there would not be too many fatalities,” Charlie Danger, a retired Miami-Dade building chief told the Times. “It pays to rebuild structures that withstand something like that. You minimize the loss of life — and the loss of infrastructure. If you lose the infrastructure, you lose everything.”
The last house standing was built to these codes, and built to last. “We’re thinking that we need to build a house that would survive for generations,” Dr. Lackey said.
“I believe the planet’s getting warmer and the storms are getting stronger,” said Mr. King. “We didn’t used to have storms like this. So people who live on the coast have to be ready for it.”
Their house came through with very little damage. A window above a shower was cracked. The staircase leading up to the house broke free, as it was designed to to.
“We can clean this up in a month,” King said. “But other folks, I don’t know. Look at what these people suffered.”
In the wake of the carnage, the owners of the house are being quite generous with what they’ve learned and what they have left. They’ve even offered to let rescue workers use it as needed.
“If FEMA wants the house, they can have it for a few weeks,” King said. “I’m not going to complain about nothing.”