When Hurricane Ian barreled into Punta Gorda and the surrounding west Florida coastline on Wednesday, the powerful storm lingered over the city north of Fort Myers for hours. It pummeled the area with torrential rain and roaring winds: One gust reached 135 miles per hour, among the highest recorded in the state.
But once the storm passed, the sight of Punta Gorda may have surprised some people. While it had typical post-hurricane storm debris, downed trees and several flooded streets, a number of homes and buildings appeared largely intact and many showed only minimal damage to their exteriors.
Those who saw videos and photos of the city shared on social media also noticed the apparent lack of widespread structural destruction.
“I can’t believe the eye went directly over Punta Gorda, and all these houses are still standing!!” one Twitter user wrote in response to an aerial video that showed part of the city the morning after the storm.
How is it possible that the coastal city wasn’t more devastated by a storm that ranks among the most powerful to ever strike the United States? One major factor, according to some experts, are modern building codes.
“It’s a demonstration that updated building codes really work,” said Nicholas Rajkovich, an associate professor in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University at Buffalo, who specializes in adapting buildings to a changing climate. “Buildings built to newer codes consistently have fared better during hurricanes and other storms than older homes.”
In Florida, the “turning point” for building codes came after Hurricane Andrew struck the state in 1992, said Kathy Baughman McLeod, senior vice president and director for the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center.
Andrew, which caused dozens of deaths and an estimated $26 billion in damages, resulted in a statewide building code that included some of the toughest storm-specific codes in the country. The storm was a “game-changing hurricane,” said Baughman McLeod, who lived through Andrew and Hurricane Charley, among others, when she resided in Florida.
For Punta Gorda, the critical rebuild came after Hurricane Charley decimated the city in 2004.
“Charley was almost like a spring cleaning event,” said Joe Schortz, a resident of Punta Gorda and owner of a local construction and remodeling business. “Charley destroyed a lot of the older homes with the winds.”
Many of the homes and buildings were reconstructed to modernized building codes that were improved again in 2007, Schortz said. And in the aftermath of Ian, the buildings left still standing seemed to have at least one thing in common, he said: “Everything with a 2007 code and beyond pretty much was fine.”
At Charlotte High School, which was rebuilt after Charley, a plaque testifies to its commitment to a more resilient future.
“This school has risen from the rubble to reawaken as the magnificent, enduring structure you see today,” the plaque reads. “Never again will the winds be feared, never again.”
The high school survived Ian with barely any structural damage, according to a report from Reuters.
But Punta Gorda didn’t escape unscathed. Much of the city is without power and water, Schortz said. Meanwhile, “quite a few places did get ravaged,” he said. Many of those structures, however, survived Charley and likely weren’t upgraded to improve their defenses in the event of another direct hit.
Buildings constructed using modern codes have a slew of structural advantages that can help them better withstand extreme weather, including major storms. For instance, updated codes often have stricter requirements around “structural load continuity,” which involves ensuring that a roof is well-connected to walls and the walls are well-connected to the structure’s foundation, Rajkovich said. Even a small failure in the “building envelope,” or the walls, roof, foundation, doors and windows, can lead to catastrophe.
A broken window or door, for example, can allow wind pressure to get into a building, he added.
“Then, there’s no real place for that wind pressure to get out of the building again,” he said. “Once it basically blows the door open, it’s trying to find a place to exit and it will do that pretty violently. Often, it will blow a hole in some other part of the house and at that point, it’s really open to the elements.”
With scientists predicting that climate change will likely lead to more frequent and intense storms, in addition to other types of extreme weather events, Rajkovich and other experts said updating codes and rebuilding in a way that reflects those more challenging conditions can help communities adapt and become more resilient.
“Our built environment protects us as human beings,” Baughman McLeod said. “The stronger that built environment is against the winds and the water and the rain, the more we survive and the more protected our economic assets are.
“Building codes are one of the strongest ways that government can protect people and property from climate-driven hurricanes.”
The Biden administration has launched a National Initiative to Advance Building Codes, which, in part, provides incentives for state, local, tribal and territorial governments to update their standards and modernizes the way federal buildings are constructed.
David Hayes, who just finished a stint as special assistant to the president for climate policy, noted in an interview Thursday that only 30 percent of the communities in the United States have adopted modern building codes.
“It’s just a plain old practical thing, but it’s essential,” he said. “When you build back now after this crisis, will the infrastructure be able to withstand the next Ian that’s coming along? That question has not been asked in previous administrations. It’s being asked and answered in this one.”
While Rajkovich said the importance of modernizing building codes can’t be overstated, he and other experts noted that how you rebuild is only one way to improve resilience. It’s also important, he said, to consider whether it’s safe to stay in vulnerable areas and to bolster natural coastal protection such as wetlands and mangroves, among other things.
“This isn’t just a Florida issue. This is a national issue,” he said. “Thinking about a national strategy for resilience is really important for this country to be able to adapt to climate change.”
Rich Matthews in Punta Gorda, Fla. contributed to this report