10 Years After Hurricane Charley: A Lesson in Strong Building Codes

By Dr. Tim Reinhold | August 13, 2014

It has been 10 years since the record-breaking 2004 Atlantic hurricane season when four major hurricanes – Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne – all made landfall in Florida within the space of six weeks, damaging one in five Florida homes. That year 2004 marked one of the busiest hurricane seasons in the U.S.

The strongest of the four storms at landfall, Hurricane Charley, struck Florida on August 13, and left a devastating path of destruction as it blew its way across the entire state. Charley had the highest winds of any hurricane making landfall in the U.S. since Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and was, once again, a wake-up call for Floridians and Americans about the danger of hurricanes.

Dr. Tim Reinhold IBHS
Dr. Tim Reinhold

With an increasing number of people moving to coastal counties and the value of property in these dangerous locations rising, what did Hurricane Charley teach us about property loss mitigation?

Hurricanes Don’t Follow Rules

Hurricane Charley was originally forecast to come ashore in Tampa, but it unexpectedly changed direction shortly before landfall and headed to Charlotte County in southwest Florida, causing residents there to scramble with last-minute preparations. The storm also increased in strength before hitting the coast, with gust wind speeds up to 150 mph.

Charley’s strong forward motion pushed high winds all the way across the state, wreaking havoc in inland areas that had not been affected by a hurricane in decades. Ironically, many people evacuated the Tampa area and headed inland to Orlando where sustained winds were reported up to 79 mph with gusts of 105 mph.

Many Florida inland areas were slammed twice again that year by Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne, as they each barreled their way through the middle of the state. Shell-shocked residents and communities that thought hurricanes wouldn’t significantly affect them so far inland were faced with damage and disruptions they believed were limited to coastal residents.

Building Codes Work

After Hurricane Andrew demolished parts of south Florida in 1992, the state adopted a strong, statewide building code and made other changes to enforce better building practices. By the 2004 hurricane season, the new code had been in effect for several years, and some coastal areas, such as Charlotte County, had implemented similar structural requirements years earlier.

Following Hurricane Charley, Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) researchers closely examined the affected region and specifically looked at claim frequency and severity using data from a major insurer in the area, including a random sample of closed insured claims. While Hurricane Charley caused significant damage, IBHS’ analysis showed a 40 percent reduction in the frequency and a 60 percent reduction in the severity of damage to homes built after 1996, when stricter codes went into effect in the area. This is clear and convincing evidence that Florida’s code requirements improved the performance of houses during a hurricane.

Strong, uniform building codes are needed across the country, but especially in hurricane-prone states. Strong, well-enforced codes increase personal safety, reduce property damage, and decrease the cost of post-disaster government aid for repairing and rebuilding following natural disasters.

IBHS’ property claims study of Hurricane Charley also identified other building vulnerabilities that result in insurance claims. For example, damage to roofs and soffits were found to be common causes of interior water damage. Structures attached to houses, such as screened pool enclosures, also accounted for significant losses.

Resilient Communities

As extreme weather events increase and more properties are built in harm’s way, building resilient communities must be at the forefront of the national dialogue. Hurricane Charley taught us that enacting and enforcing strong building codes based on sound science is vital to building resilient communities. Ten years after Charley and the other devastating hurricanes in 2004, we are still talking about the same issues. Let us resolve not to be discussing these same topics 10 years from now.

We know a good deal about how to strengthen buildings so they can better withstand the punishing wind and damaging water hurricanes bring: tie the house together so strong winds can’t blow it apart; protect windows and doors to keep wind and water out; and most importantly, make the roof as strong as possible because it is every building’s first line of defense against Mother Nature. While we know a great deal, we are learning more every day through building science research. As we remember the 2004 hurricane season, let’s place a renewed focus on building, retrofitting and repairing our homes and businesses to stand strong when Mother Nature roars.

Reinhold is senior vice president of research and chief engineer, Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS).

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