Isn't it enough to have stringent building codes,
demand special materials, and judiciously inspect new
No, according to some Florida officials. The two counties with the
nation's strongest hurricane protections say they need yet another
tool to ensure that single-family homes have all the right storm
safeguards: a structural engineering review.
In response to a study that found sometimes serious structural
deficiencies in the blueprints for new homes, Florida's Broward
County late last year hired a structural engineer to spot-check
plans. Broward joins neighboring Miami-Dade, where a staff of
structural engineers has double-checked all home plans for flaws
since 1994, two years after Hurricane Andrew convinced policymakers
of the need for the review.
"I personally think that of all the reviews we do, the most
important is the structural review," explains Charles Danger,
director of Miami-Dade County's building department.
Structural engineers typically concentrate on motels, skyscrapers,
and other large buildings, with designers of single-family homes
rarely invoking their expertise. But Miami-Dade's and Broward's
review policies are challenging that tradition.
One result has been the renewal of an old debate between architects
and engineers about their respective roles — with each
profession complaining of the other's poaching on its territory.
Adding fuel to the debate is the 2002 Florida Building Code, which
requires an architect or engineer to sign and seal new home plans
but doesn't specify one profession over the other.
"My strongest comment about this is that if the engineers are going
to be doing all the structural work for essentially any project,
then they need to lay off the design of any habitable space,
because it is not correct on their part to be designing houses,"
notes Kaizer Talib, principal architect for Urbanform Design Group
Inc. and past president of the Fort Lauderdale chapter of the
American Institute of Architects.
The only counties in Florida's so-called High Velocity Hurricane
Wind Zone, Broward and Miami-Dade are widely acknowledged to have
the nation's toughest hurricane building codes. For example, new
homes in the counties must resist gusts of 140 and 146 miles per
hour, respectively, with doors and windows remaining intact.
Broward and Miami-Dade building officials say the result is that
architects or engineers must complete more complicated calculations
— accentuated by today's penchant for bigger, more
architecturally intricate homes.
The evidence is that many don't get the numbers right, officials
Three years ago, a Miami Herald investigation of 10 homes in a
Miramar subdivision found that all had structural flaws, including
wall-to-roof connections not designed to withstand top wind gusts.
In early 2003, the Broward County Board of Rules and Appeals
launched its own study of 25 home plans. The review found problems
in all of the homes, including "at least one or two of the roofs in
the sample that would come off," says Jim DiPietro, board staff
In plan reviews by structural engineers, which are so far
required only in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties in Florida, wind
design has been the most prevalent problem. Officials argue that
regular reviews in all hurricane zones might have prevented this
type of wind damage, which was typical of damage found across
Pensacola Beach after Hurricane Ivan in 2004.
One architecturally designed home that did receive an
engineering review prior to construction survived the storm surge
from Hurricane Ivan. With the exception of a staircase designed to
break away, this Pensacola Beach home remained intact.
As a result, the board decided last year to hire a structural
engineer to spot-check plans countywide and consult on those that
raised red flags with reviewers. The county also required designers
to submit calculations up front showing that their plans satisfied
the wind requirements, explains Bill Dumbaugh, Broward's chief
structural code compliance officer.
Structural engineer Mark Scala's first report was due in mid-April.
But according to Dumbaugh, his initial findings were mixed. "He
found plans that are just so excellent you wouldn't believe it,"
Dumbaugh notes, "and some that are on the other end of the
In Miami-Dade, Charles Danger says plans with incomplete or botched
structural engineering provisions are the norm rather than the
exception. The county's 10 licensed structural engineers reject
from 50% to 55% of submitted plans on first review, which exceeds
the overall rejection of 46%, he explains.
"The wind design is the main problem," says Flavio Gomez, county
building division director. "Determination of the wind loads, the
design of the members for the wind loads, and the connections for
the members — those are the main things we reject."
TOUGHER POLICIES TO COME?
Miami-Dade and Broward Counties have a history as early adopters of
hurricane protection measures that wind up becoming commonplace
elsewhere. Structural engineering reviews, meanwhile, are not
unheard of outside Florida. In California, for example, some
municipalities use engineers to ensure that homes are protected
against earthquakes. Los Angeles County has a staff of 35
plan-check engineers. Their most-oft-cited problems include
inadequate steel reinforcement for foundation footings and improper
shear transfer, notes spokesman Ken Pellman.
That said, the policies of Miami-Dade and Broward Counties won't
necessarily spur other counties to hire their own structural
engineers. Although Talib, the Fort Lauderdale architect, says he
welcomes it, some architects and engineers oppose the structural
"The architects are more vociferous in telling us their
displeasure," Danger notes. "They claim that structural engineering
limits the artistic part of their design."
Building officials in other counties, meanwhile, aren't convinced
structural reviews will toughen homes. Just north of Broward, Palm
Beach County's chief building officer Roland Holt is the only
licensed engineer on his staff. He says he's taught plan reviewers
what to look for — and the problem isn't with his review
process but with engineers and architects who repeatedly fail their
"My greatest disappointment is how poorly the design professionals
do in preventing the repetitive mistakes that my plan examiners
tell them about," he explains. — Aaron Hoover
Hurricane AcademyBehind the scenes, university research quietly advances
hurricane defense technology
The forecasters get most of the TV time. But behind the scenes, the
work of another group of professionals could also prove key to
coastal hurricane defense.
Supported by a deepening pool of public dollars, a loose coalition
of research engineers and finance and construction experts are
taking a second look at traditional notions about everything from
how hurricanes take down homes to how to calculate dollar losses to
affected communities. Their research could spur better building
codes, more equitable insurance rates, and other changes —
although politics, among other factors, could slow progress.
Academic research on hurricanes is not new. But what was once a
small specialty focused on meteorology is morphing into a diverse
field. Web of Science, a citation index that scans 8,700 science
journals, in 2004 listed 200 articles with the keyword "hurricane,"
compared with 112 in 1994 and 26 in 1984.
While meteorology still dominates, building science titles like
"Hurricane damage prediction model for residential structures" pop
up repeatedly in the latest list.
"I think Hurricane Andrew was a wakeup call in the U.S.," says
Shahid Hamid, a Florida International University associate
professor of finance. "More damage has been done through hurricanes
than earthquakes over the last 50 years."
Hamid is one of the lead researchers on a nearly $3 million
project, funded by the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation, to
create a public computer model capable of predicting hurricane
insurance losses. Insurers rely on such models, but they are
largely secret. That leaves regulators at a disadvantage when
mulling over arguments for hikes.
The open nature of academic research is just one of its values,
proponents say. Another is scientific rigor.
Dr. Tim Reinhold of the Institute for Business & Home
Safety leads a team of university engineering students outfitting
32 Florida coastal homes with pressure sensors at corners and
roof-wall connections. The initiative is one of many programs
designed to evaluate the forces that low-altitude hurricane winds
exert on homes.
In one ongoing project led by the University of Florida, research
engineers are analyzing the performance of the 2002 Florida
Building Code following the 2004 storms. Anecdotally, most agree
post-code homes stood up better. But the engineers are using
surveys, interviews with homeowners, and more than 100 visits to
damaged homes to systematically determine whether that's
"When you have industry running these things, it's biased," because
the sponsor may have an agenda or because the study may not be
based on scientific principles, says Forrest Masters, one of the
engineers involved and director of the laboratory for wind
engineering research at FIU's International Hurricane Research
While previous research relied on lab work, new computer and
communications technologies have shifted the emphasis to the field.
Research engineers seeking to learn more about the forces that
low-altitude hurricane winds exert on homes, for example, have
outfitted 32 Florida coastal homes with pressure sensors at corners
and roof-wall connections. Following the 2004 storms, they
collected data from 16 of the homes. They'll use the data to check
the accuracy of ASCE-7, the hurricane wind standard, which is
currently based on tests involving miniaturized homes in wind
tunnels in thunderstorm conditions.
"We can find out based on these comparisons whether the [code] is
conservative, not conservative, or in line with where it should
be," says Kurt Gurley, a University of Florida associate professor
of civil engineering.
How much solid science will count toward actual code or other
improvements is hard to know. Florida Building Commission officials
started discussing possible changes to the state's code in December
of last year, but the earliest effective date for a new code is
July 2006, notes Rick Dixon, executive director. In the interim,
the law provides for ample opportunities for input from insurers,
manufactures, builders, and other groups.
"Usually it winds up coming down to a reasonable compromise,"
Gurley says. "That's the hope, anyway." — A.H.
Currents2005 HURRICANE FORECAST
Following one of the most destructive hurricane seasons in recorded
history, Dr. William Gray — the nation's most acclaimed
hurricane forecaster — predicts the upcoming hurricane season
will be busier than usual in the Atlantic Basin. Dr. Gray's report
(available online at http://hurricane.atmos.colostate.
edu/Forecasts/) indicates that 2005 will see 13 named storms, seven
of which would turn into hurricanes. Three of these hurricanes are
likely to include winds exceeding 111 mph.
PROBABILITIES FOR AT LEAST ONE MAJOR (CATEGORY 3-4-5) HURRICANE
LANDFALL ON EACH OF THE FOLLOWING COASTAL AREAS:
• Entire U.S. coastline: 73% (average for last century is
• U.S. East Coast including the Florida Peninsula: 53%
(average for last century is 31%)
• Gulf Coast from the Florida Panhandle westward to
Brownsville: 41% (average for last century is 30%)
• Expected above-average major hurricane landfall risk in the
In another prediction issued by the Weather Research Center in
Houston, Texas, the sections of the Atlantic coast with the highest
probability of a landfalling tropical storm or hurricane in 2005 is
the Texas coast and the west coast of Florida, which both have a
70% chance of experiencing a tropical system this year. The section
of the coast from Georgia to North Carolina has the second highest
risk with a 60% chance of experiencing a landfalling tropical storm
COASTAL POPULATION BOOMS
According to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration (NOAA) released this year, the narrow U.S. coastline
makes up only 17% of the nation's land area yet is home to more
than half of its population. In 2003, approximately 153 million
people (53% of the nation's population) lived in the 673 U.S.
coastal counties, an increase of 33 million people since
The updated population report (available online at
also noted that:
• In 2003, 23 of the 25 most densely populated U.S. counties
• Almost one quarter of the nation's seasonal homes are found
in the coastal areas of Florida.
• The most populated coastal counties are found in Texas and
along Florida's central Gulf Coast.
• Between 2003 and 2008, coastal population in the Southeast
is expected to grow by 1.1 million people — 8% of the 14
million people in 2003. This is the largest percentage of all U.S
• The Gulf of Mexico's coastal population (just over 19.1
million in 2003) is expected to grow by just over 1.2 million
people (7%) by 2008. This is the second-highest rate of growth for
this period, just behind the Southeast.