While nearly everyone in south Florida has spent the past five years trying to forget the devastation wrought by Hurricane Andrew, there has been one insistent voice trying to ensure that they do not.
Given the severity of what still ranks as one of the nation's costliest natural disasters, you might expect that Charlie Danger's message would be better received. Instead, the head of the Dade County Building Code Compliance Office has himself been caught in a hurricane of controversy.
Like everyone else who sifted through the wreckage of places such as Homestead and Florida City, Danger came to the conclusion that shoddy construction standards and lax code enforcement contributed nearly as much to the severity of the disaster as Mother Nature's 155 mph winds did. Having taken the helm of the code enforcement office just months before disaster struck, it was Danger's job to blow the whistle on his own agency, which bore responsibility for code writing and enforcement in the first place.
By tightening the South Florida Building Code, the standard that applies to Dade County's 29 municipalities and to neighboring Broward County, the agency forced roofers and building contractors to follow strict guidelines and demanded hurricane-resistant designs for products ranging from siding to storm shutters. More roofing inspections were required. New single-story houses now must be built with concrete columns.
Manufacturers were not spared either. When Dade County imposed a stricter asphalt shingle testing standard, most manufacturers responded by pulling out of the local market. Danger held his ground, though, and in the end the shingle industry blinked and acceded to his wishes.
To homeowners and the insurance companies that have handled close to $16 billion in hurricane-related claims, Danger's enforcement activism comes as a breath of fresh air. Those forced to work within the strictures of the new code, however, portray Danger as a throttle on new construction who is single-handedly raising the cost of new homes. They contend that better enforcement is the answer, not more regulation.
Danger's opponents have not been shy in their attempts to oust him from his job or, at least limit the authority of his office. A 1996 county task force report recommended just that, proposing to revoke the code enforcement office's power to overrule municipal building officials and to order repairs or halt construction. While Danger dodged that bullet, his office was less successful this year in opposing a legislative end-run around local building codes that rolled back a requirement that construction sites have at least one journeyman plumber or electrician for every three unlicensed workers.
"We have been able to send a message across, but we have been less successful at having that message swallowed," says Danger. "Construction is booming, land is becoming scarce, so the code has not been a deterrent. People have to understand that they just have to build better buildings and better homes."
It is still unclear whether the state's powerful homebuilding lobby ultimately will swallow Danger's bitter medicine. Its concerns have sparked a wide-ranging review by a gubernatorial commission, with the goal of devising a uniform statewide code. The panel's report will go a long way toward deciding whether Danger's vision is ultimately accepted.
"Everything that has to do with construction becomes a political issue because it has to do with money," says Danger. "We have only done what we are supposed to do. And that is to make sure buildings have a good chance of withstanding another hurricane."
— Charles Mahtesian
Photo by Tom Salyer