By David Ovalle
Built directly on the Atlantic Ocean in Summerland Key, Bob Chapek's home stood in the crosshairs when Hurricane Irma slammed into the islands.
A terrifying 7-foot surge of sea water burst into the ground-floor garage as 130 mph winds relentlessly hammered the building.
But when the water receded and the winds passed, the concrete home elevated on stilts with hurricane resistant windows remained intact. The ground-floor garage _ designed to give way to surge _ was an unmitigated mess, along with the docks and yard. But the structure stood strong, the upper floor where people live untouched inside.
"In the grand scheme of things, given the magnitude of the storm, it's such a sturdy house and so well-planned out, we weathered the storm as good as can be expected," Chapek said. "And it's right on the Atlantic side _ and the storm was a direct hit."
Although authorities are still assessing the full scope of the damage, Monroe County emergency managers, structural engineers and others who have conducted initial damage surveys believe that tough building codes specifically designed to withstand Florida's fiercest hurricane may have spared the islands from outright obliteration from Irma.
Clearly, Irma's steamroll over the Lower Keys left billions of dollars in damage that will take months, even years to clean up and repair. Many mobile homes were shredded, some well-known older buildings and restaurants _ Snapper's in Key Largo, the Rainbow Bend Resort in Grassy Key _ were devastated. The electrical grid and sewage and water systems also suffered serious damage, posing perhaps the biggest hurdle to allowing residents back into the Lower Keys.
But Chapek's largely intact home underscores what could be a lesson for how to build homes in the future along the rest of Florida's coastline, which is just as vulnerable to hurricanes. Monroe County's building standards are among the toughest in the nation and _ at least for the newest single-family homes built after 2001 _ they appear to have been up to the challenge.
Chapek's home, built a dozen years ago out of precast concrete, has withstood brushes with at least six hurricanes with manageable damage _ including a direct hit from Irma _ the most powerful hurricane to hit the Keys in nearly 60 years.
"Monroe and Dade County definitely have the strongest building codes in the country when it comes to the wind and water," said Allen Douglas, executive director of the Florida Engineering Society. "We're hopeful, when all the assessments are done, we're going to find the codes stood the test."
The storm made landfall early Sept. 10 at Cudjoe Key, a small community 20 miles northeast of Key West and one island over from Summerland, as a Category 4 hurricane with winds estimated at 130 miles per hour.
Hurricane Andrew in 1992 was the catalyst for stricter building codes mandated statewide one decade later. The storm's destruction of South Miami-Dade showed that many of the razed homes were shoddily built under weak standards. Now, structures in Florida must be able to withstand winds of 111 mph and higher, while Miami-Dade and Broward buildings must hold steady against winds of at least 130 mph. In the Keys, homes must be built to withstand winds of up to 150 mph.
But because of its unique setting and vulnerability to hurricanes, Monroe has long had stricter building codes than the rest of the state and has mandated some critical upgrades.
Most importantly _ homes must be elevated above the flood plain to allow storm surge, which is the deadliest part of a hurricane, to pass underneath living spaces. Bottom floors can only be used for limited purposes such as storage and recreation.
"The idea was those walls would be breakaway walls to allow surge to go through without affecting the structure of the house," said Ricardo Alvarez, a Miami-based expert on structural vulnerabilities.
That's what happened to Grassy Key's Seashell Resort, which sits directly on the Atlantic at Mile Marker 57. The surge punched through the walls _ destroying the first-floor Caribbean suite and depositing crabs, coconuts and sea grass _ inside the room. But the building itself did not topple.
Contractors in the Keys have always had a reputation for making better buildings, and the improved standards helped even further, said Charlie Danger, the former Miami-Dade chief building inspector who led the charge to improve building codes after Andrew.
Danger believes the tough standards are paying off. He himself has a home in Islamorada, built four years after Andrew, that survived largely unscathed.
"In a general sense, we can say the work that was done in making a better code _ and also putting a little bit of fear into contractors and telling them to be more responsible when they build _ created a better stock of housing," Danger said.
That's not to say that the Middle and Lower Keys didn't suffer horrific damage. The storm inflicted a vicious blow, hurling heavy boats onto the Overseas Highway, crumpling gas-station canopies, exploding trailer homes and scattering branches, kayaks, refrigerators, gas grills, sections of roofs and all manner of debris across the islands. Muddy surge filled streets from Key Largo to Key West.
On Wednesday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott toured the home of a Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission officer whose home on Marathon was completely destroyed in an area that got some 9 feet of storm surge.
The three-story Sandy Cove condos, built in the early '60s and down the street from Danger's house, imploded from the winds and sea. "Like a pancake," Danger said. And trailer homes, among the most vulnerable of structures in storms, were decimated up and down the Keys.
And with no running water, working sewer system or flowing electricity for residents in the hardest hit parts of the Lower Keys, living conditions will remain miserable _ and frustrating _ for the coming weeks.
The director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said on Tuesday that "initial estimates" were that a quarter of all Keys houses were "destroyed" and 65 percent suffered some damage.
That night, Marathon officials seemed to push back on the estimate, saying no real assessments had been done. "Things look real damaged from the air, but when you clear the trees and all the debris, it's not much damage to the houses," Monroe County Commissioner Heather Carruthers said in a statement on Tuesday.
Some older homes that have undergone renovations also seemed to have fared well.
In Big Pine Key, some residents were able to view photos of their homes thanks to local family that secured a small private plane to do a flyover off the island. The photos were posted on a group Facebook page.
"The joy we felt when our house was still standing _ it was such a relief," said Jennifer Barr, whose family owns a 1985 elevated wood-frame home in the island's Port Pine Heights neighborhood.
The previous owners installed a stronger roof after Hurricane Wilma wrecked parts of the Keys in 2005. Said Barr: "This is our happy place. We have made so many wonderful memories here as a family since we purchased this home a year and a half ago."
Another home on Big Torch owned by the Cheston family was built in the '70s but had its roof and cement stilts redone about five years ago, with cement siding replacing wood. Anthony Cheston, who flew over Big Torch to take photos of his dad's home and the island, said it lost some shingles and a board on one wall.
"It lost shingles and one board on the wall," he said. "Other than water damages and the tiki bar blowing down I think it held up well."
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