Strong Hurricanes, Stricter Building Codes Changing Florida’s Coastal Communities

Trixie Parkes' 1976 wood-framed cottage was both her home and her primary source of income, as she rented out two units on the top floor to tourists. However, Hurricane Ian ripped through in late September, destroying most of the first floor and gouging a gaping hole in the walls of the second floor. She lacked flood insurance, which she claimed became prohibitively expensive following Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Source: WSJ | Published on October 17, 2022

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Ms. Parkes, 59, intends to sell her home. "I'm in a fantastic location," she explained. "Perhaps someone will come up to me and offer me a lot of money, and I will be able to walk away."

Five blocks away is a $2 million home that escaped the storm with minimal damage. Fernando Gonzalez built the two-story, concrete-block house six years ago to exceed the building code's requirements at the time.

He claimed that instead of raising the house 12 feet as required, he raised it 4 feet higher. He also stated that he went 6 feet below ground and installed thick concrete walls instead of columns, with vents to allow water to flow through in the event of a storm surge. He estimated that such upgrades increased the construction costs by about $15,000.

"If you want to live near the ocean, you have to pay," Mr. Gonzalez, 57, explained.

Strong hurricanes and stricter building codes are changing the economic and demographic makeup of Florida's coastal communities in quick succession. Inexpensive cottages vulnerable to harsh weather are giving way to more expensive, resilient homes—a transition that is strengthening the housing stock while limiting who can afford to live on the coast.

Rising premiums for homeowners and flood insurance add to the costs.

Florida's building code has long been regarded as one of the most stringent in the country. Following the destruction of tens of thousands of homes in the Miami area by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, lawmakers enacted a uniform statewide building code with more stringent construction requirements. The code, which went into effect in 2002 and is updated every three years, sets a minimum standard that local governments must follow.

According to Anne Cope, chief engineer at the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, an industry-backed research group, the latest version, adopted in 2020, includes provisions to seal roof decks to keep water out, as well as longer-standing requirements to install impact-resistant windows or shutters and ensure strong connections between the roof, walls, and foundation. It also includes provisions to protect against flood hazards, such as elevating structures above a certain level.

According to Census Bureau and National Hurricane Center data, an estimated 69% of housing units in the areas of southwest and central Florida that fell within Ian's hurricane-force wind swath were built before 2000, two years before the statewide building code went into effect.

A study published in August by the University of Florida and other researchers, shows that coastal areas in the United States that are vulnerable to storms and sea-level rise have developed faster and become denser than non-coastal areas. As a result, the vulnerability of building structures to natural hazards is growing.

A June report by CoreLogic, a real-estate data company, says that nearly 33 million homes worth nearly $10.5 trillion are at risk of hurricane-force wind damage along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. According to the report, nearly 7.8 million homes worth more than $2.3 trillion in reconstruction costs are at risk of storm-surge damage.

Flood and wind losses from Ian will range between $41 billion and $70 billion, including $10 billion to $17 billion in uninsured flood losses because many homeowners do not have flood insurance, according to a CoreLogic analysis released earlier this month.

"As these numbers grow larger and larger, there will come a point where the community will be unable to recover," said Tom Larsen, CoreLogic's senior director of hazard and risk management. "People leave and never return."

Mexico Beach, Florida's panhandle, imposed code changes in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in 2018. New homes in many areas must now be built 1.5 feet above the highest point in the adjacent roadway, and those in low-lying areas must be elevated significantly higher. It also increased the wind speed that new homes must withstand from 130 to 140 miles per hour.

Mexico Beach's character was sought to be preserved, with its cottages, seafood restaurants, and population of retired teachers, military personnel, and others drawn to an affordable beachfront lifestyle. High-rise developments were still prohibited by officials.

They couldn't, however, avoid change. Some uninsured homeowners sold their homes and relocated. Investors purchased land and constructed larger rental homes. New gated communities are springing up all over the place.

According to data compiled by 98 Real Estate Group, a local firm, the average sales price of homes in a stretch of coast that includes Mexico Beach increased to $453,000 in 2021 from $271,000 in 2019. In 2021, there were ten home sales of $1 million or more, and two sales of $2 million or more this year.

"The building has been incredible," said Bobby Pollock, a Mexico Beach city council member.

A similar trend could emerge in the Fort Myers area, according to Mark Wilson, president of London Bay Development Group, a Naples, Fla.-based real-estate developer. In Fort Myers Beach, the company is building a 10-story condo building with 58 units starting at $1.3 million. The nearly finished building fared well under Ian's scrutiny, with breakaway walls designed to collapse in the event of a heavy storm surge performing as expected.

The Ritz-Carlton Residences, Estero Bay, to the south, will break ground next year, with units starting at $2.8 million.

Mr. Wilson predicts that as older homes in the Fort Myers area are demolished, those that replace them will be significantly more expensive.

In 2000, James and Becky Reed paid $150,000 for a wood-framed bungalow near the beach in Fort Myers Beach and moved from Tennessee to retire. With palm-tree-lined streets and candy-colored cottages, the beach community was an affordable slice of Florida.

The Reeds' first-floor walls and windows were blown out, and siding on the second floor was ripped away, soaking the interior drywall. Though the couple has homeowners and flood insurance, with annual premiums of about $8,200, they say the payouts are unlikely to cover rebuilding costs given current building codes.

According to neighbor Romaine Turner, 84, the storm surge swept a nearby wooden cottage off its foundation, flinging its two elderly residents through a window. She claimed to have dragged them in through her window and saved them. She and the couple have no plans to return, she said.

Matlacha, an island community north of Fort Myers Beach, has maintained its identity as a mix of fishing village and artsy outpost. Restaurants, bars, boutiques, and galleries are housed in brightly colored structures. Residents enjoy a relaxed way of life, kayaking along mangroves or relaxing on waterfront decks at sunset.

The hurricane flipped it over, destroying homes and businesses. Richard and Sonya Giannone purchased a home there last year, which they planned to renovate and use as their primary residence. They purchased a gallery down the street in May, which featured stained glass, jewelry, and pottery.

Because of the storm, the ground beneath the house collapsed, causing a portion of it to fall into the water. It remains to be seen whether it can be salvaged. The gallery flooded, but the structure of the building remained intact. The Giannones have concentrated on preserving it, bringing in crews to remove flooring and wall panels and running dehumidifiers to prevent mold from spreading.

They are expecting a financial hit because neither property had flood or wind damage insurance. "Right now, there's not much we can do," Mr. Giannone, 76, said. "We're taking it one step at a time."

Christina Lyle's house took on about a foot and a half of water, coating her floors and furniture with sludge. She was drawn to Matlacha, a sixth-generation Floridian who bought the property four years ago, because it represented old Florida to her.

"It's home, it's cozy, and everyone looks out for one another," Ms. Lyle, 50, said. During the day, she frequently goes fishing, hangs out at a coffee shop, or visits local shops. She recently joined the Matlacha Hookers, a women's civic group named after fish hooks that raises funds for local causes.

Ms. Lyle stated that her home is covered by homeowners and flood insurance and that she intends to rebuild, but she is unsure how long she will stay. She is concerned that Matlacha, like so much of the Florida coast, will change as a result of the hurricane.

"All I can hope for is that when the rebuilding begins, it doesn't turn into high-rises," she said.