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Charley put codes to test

| Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2004

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Destruction spreads in every direction from this city's main commercial strip, save for one oasis: the Walgreens drugstore.

Customers can buy everything from bags of ice -- the dearest of commodities in a place without air-conditioning, but with plenty of heat -- to The New York Times and New York Post.

Hurricane Charley destroyed most nearby buildings Friday. Not the drugstore. It has only a few red roof tiles out of place. A gasoline generator powers its lights and computers.

The store opened in 2000, eight years after Hurricane Andrew in South Florida taught the state a $20 billion lesson about its inadequate building practices.

"What did Florida learn?" said Wayne P. Sallade, Charlotte County's emergency management director. "It learned a lot. This is the first test of the new building codes. It's working."

Hurricane Charley is the new case study, and engineers are finding that they have been moving in the right direction, County Manager Bruce D. Loucks said. Many of the homes, mobile homes and businesses still standing are those that went up after Andrew, when building codes were toughened, Loucks said.

"These are newer houses built to the newer standards since Hurricane Andrew," Loucks said. "Obviously, the codes are working quite well."

Among the requirements, the codes say that galvanized metal strips must be used to attach roofs to buildings. Wind getting under a roof attached only with nails will lift the roof off and destroy the building.

Throughout the storm-ravaged area, only two types of buildings remain relatively unscathed: so-called "cracker" houses built in the early 20th century, and newer homes and stores built under the post-Andrew building codes.

Cheap homes and strip stores built during the intervening years -- when relentless demand led to rapid and often shoddy construction -- have sustained the most damage. Many lacked even basic storm-proofing such as metal shutters. In other homes, flimsy garage doors were blown out, roofs were lifted and buildings destroyed.

By contrast, the Punta Gorda house where Wampus Wagoner, 57, rode out Hurricane Charley doesn't seem as though it was in the storm's path. It was.

Built nearly a century ago, the wood frame house still has its original windows, most of which weren't covered for Charley.

"This place took as bad as it could hand out," Wagoner said. "This was a great house to be in."

The home's brick chimney broke off and a first-floor window casing fell in, but was pushed back into place during the storm.

Besides its sturdy construction, the house has a crawl space underneath where air can pass unimpeded. Dense foliage surrounds the home, absorbing both the storm and a shower of debris from other buildings, Wagoner said.

Wagoner, a lifelong Florida resident, has no use for shoddy construction.

"We've been tellin' 'em," he said with a thick drawl, "a hurricane's gonna take care of that problem."

Eloise McDougal, 78, lives in a house in nearby Punta Gorda that her grandparents built in 1908. She left before Friday's storm, expecting never to see her home in one piece again.

Returning Saturday morning, she stood at the end of the street with tears in her eyes. Not one of the home's original window panes was broken. Almost every window was shattered in a four-story office building across the street.

Her daughter, Melinda McDougal, 45, said she felt her great-grandparents' presence.

"We swear all their spirits were on top of the house, holding it down," she said.

Homes and businesses built under Florida's new building codes can fare just as well, said Sallade, Charlotte's emergency management director. Lessons learned from Hurricane Andrew and tested here in Southwest Florida will make a big difference throughout Florida over the next generation, he said.

"I've got neighborhoods that are just wiped out," Sallade said, "and there are homes built in the last year standing there without a scratch on them."

Area utilities send help south

Twenty-seven Allegheny Power personnel from Pennsylvania and West Virginia left early Sunday morning for Florida to help local utility Florida Power & Light Co. restore electric service after Hurricane Charley's devastating path through the Sunshine State.

"We sent both line crews and support personnel," said Allegheny Power spokesman Guy Fletcher. "They could be there up to two weeks."

Fletcher said the employees did not leave sooner because the Greensburg-based utility was not sure which path the hurricane was going to take once it started northward.

"We had to be sure that it would not impact our service territory," Fletcher said.

Discussions with not only Florida utilities, but also fellow electricity providers in the Carolinas and even farther north began nearly a week ago, as Allegheny Power began planning how many personnel would be sent and where, Fletcher said.

Meanwhile, 24 Duquesne Light employees from the Pittsburgh area headed to Orlando yesterday morning. The power company sent a 10-truck caravan to Florida to help utility workers making repairs after Hurricane Charley.

Separately, two representatives of the American Red Cross of Southwestern Pennsylvania were sent Saturday to Florida to help with relief efforts.

-- The Tribune-Review

Additional Information:

Details

Tougher building standards

After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Florida's building codes were toughened. Among the changes:

  • Buildings must be able to withstand 130 mph winds, up from 110 mph.

  • Hurricane straps must be used, in addition to nails, to attach roofs to buildings. The tin roof on a newly renovated home in Punta Gorda, Charlotte County, remained in place during Hurricane Charley. A roof nailed to an older house next door blew off, allowing rainwater to cause major damage inside.

  • Reinforced garage doors are mandatory.

  • Each part of a building from the roof line down must be anchored in the foundation.

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