On Oct. 12, The New York Times published a series of photos taken along one mile of highway extending north from Mexico Beach, Florida, where just two days earlier Hurricane Michael swept ashore with 155 mph winds.
The Category 4 storm was the strongest ever to hit Florida’s Panhandle, and the aerial photos showed a devastated landscape of ruined or missing homes and businesses, and the tangled wreckage of boats and piers.
But the devastation was not complete. Although many buildings were gone, here and there stood a survivor. One of them is a house built just last year to standards far exceeding local building codes. The house, used as a rental when its two owners are not in town, suffered only minor damage while buildings all around it were swept away.
In an article about the building, named the Sand Palace by owners Russell King and his nephew LeBron Lackey, the house was described as the last beachfront home left on the block. Lackey, who lives in Cleveland, Tennessee, told the paper, “We wanted to build it for the big one. We just never knew we’d find the big one so fast.”
The article lists a few of the construction details, but also leaves big blanks. Neither Lackey nor the architect, Charles A. Gaskin, could be reached to provide any more information.
What we do know is the house is made of steel-reinforced concrete and constructed on pilings sunk 40 feet into the sand. Eaves were kept to a minimum so the wind would have less of a grip on the roof, and the pilings kept the house above the storm surge. While counties in that part of the Panhandle require buildings be able to resist winds of 120 to 150 miles per hour, Lackey and King built theirs to handle 250 mph winds.
The Times said the only real damage was the loss of a stairway providing access to the house and the bit of siding that surrounded it. The house was designed so that winds could tear that part of the structure away without destroying anything else. Elsewhere, one window in the shower was cracked, and the owner reported minor water damage.
News reports focused on the immediate coast. But as The Washington Post reported, people living far inland also faced challenges. In Marianna, 50 miles from the coast, buildings in the downtown area were badly damaged after the community took a direct hit.
Many people in the Panhandle live on dirt roads that are now blocked by fallen trees. Many residents decided not to evacuate because they were so far from the coast.
“Nobody thought it was going to be this devastating,” retired firefighter Sean Collins told the newspaper.
What residents can expect now
Recovery is likely to be slow, Kim Slowey reports at Construction Dive. There is no electricity in the areas hit hardest by the storm, and even the utility crews working around the clock may not be able to restore power for some time.
Florida building codes were toughened after Hurricane Andrew did some $25 billion in damage in 1992. Florida also has some of the most stringent licensing requirements for builders in the country, but past experience suggests that state officials may be willing to relax some regulations in order to speed up repairs.
Last year, after Hurricane Irma struck, Gov. Rick Scott ordered that state-licensed contractors be allowed to repair and replace roofs, rather than subcontract roofing work as required by state law. In 2004, the governor at that time, Jeb Bush, did the same thing after four hurricanes came ashore in a single year. That order also permitted out-of-state roofing contractors a limited amount of time to work in Florida.
Two problems that local residents are likely to encounter, Slowey said, are an increase in scam artists looking for a quick buck, and a shortage of both building materials and labor.
Companies that specialize in storm recovery are already very busy in the Carolinas and Virginia as they continue cleaning up after Hurricane Florence. Even last year’s Hurricane Harvey is still keeping contractors busy in Texas.
Not even a week has passed since Hurricane Michael struck Mexico Beach, and it’s likely to be some time before officials there can figure out why a few buildings were left standing when so many others were not.
The Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS), a research organization supported by the insurance industry, has posted some resources for people hoping to rebuild and touts the benefits of its Fortified Home program.