Though Hurricane Charley's devastation was extensive, it may have been blunted by tough new federal regulations designed to make mobile homes less vulnerable to violent storms, experts said yesterday.
In addition, a new state building code may also have helped prevent some damage -- although probably to a lesser extent, because it took effect only two years ago.
After Hurricane Andrew devastated Florida in 1992, federal regulators began reviewing trailer park construction regulations and Florida launched a major review of the state's overall preparedness. They led to measures designed to minimize damage from future natural disasters, including the new building code intended to make structures less vulnerable to high winds.
"It's certainly a major improvement from the old building standard," said Ronald F. Zollo, a professor of civil and architectural engineering at the University of Miami. "It's not just the wind speed. It's also how they put things together, the way things are assembled and attached. There are lots of new requirements."
Still, the code has affected only those buildings constructed in the past two years.
The new building code allows less stringent construction in the central part of the state, said Harvey Ryland, a former deputy director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency who now serves as president and chief executive of the Institute for Business and Home Safety, an insurance industry group.
"They have lower requirements than they do on the coast," he said. "We feel they should have the same level of protection. The track of this hurricane and subsequent damage proves the point that we need the same level of protection for the entire state."
Charley swept through central Florida late Friday and early Saturday, hitting the Gulf coast near Punta Gorda before heading north through Orlando and then going out to sea north of Jacksonville. Preliminary estimates by state officials just for insured buildings put damage at more than $11 billion.
The new state building code does not apply to trailer homes and mobile homes. But federal requirements that cover those structures were updated in 1994 because of Andrew, and appear to have helped, Ryland said.
"A preliminary assessment by our teams in the area affected [by Charley] indicate that those built under the more recent improvements in the code appear to have suffered less damage," Ryland said.
Ryland's group has been advocating additional measures that state and local governments could take. They would give homeowners and businesses financial incentives to retrofit all older structures to make them more resistant to damage from storms, such as by buying stronger garage doors and shutters.
"We're never going to be fully successful in protecting lives, businesses and homes until we can get more retrofitted," Ryland said.
Another issue that the state has failed to fully address, some experts said, is the continued explosive development on the most vulnerable real estate.
"One issue in Florida is that there has been a tremendous buildup in the most at-risk areas of the state -- the east and west coasts," said Robert P. Hartwig of the Insurance Information Institute. "These are the growth areas for the state, and there is tremendous pressure to allow building there."