BLOUNTSTOWN, Fla. — The houses still standing in the storm-ravaged neighborhoods of Florida’s Panhandle are conspicuous for their presence. Sticking up from the rubble like one remaining tooth in a jawful of decay, each one is a haunting reminder of what used to exist around it.
In many cases, they were saved by additional strategically placed nails, some small metal connectors and window shutters that created a sealed package — low-cost reinforcements that determined whose home survived and whose was destroyed by the power of Hurricane Michael.
There are the five Habitat for Humanity houses in Panama City, a waterfront vacation home in Mexico Beach, a house built by a homeowner and a few of his church friends — modest structures that lost shingles and suffered water damage but stand largely untouched overlooking the wreckage of buildings that were shredded and ripped from their foundations.
“We have evidence that we can construct affordable housing that is resilient,” said Leslie Chapman-Henderson, president of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting property from disasters.
After Hurricane Andrew, which hit Florida in 1992, the state instituted a stricter building code in the early 2000s that required new buildings to use tougher nails and have more puncture-resistant walls, among other changes. But industry experts say that homeowners can go further in strengthening their homes without spending tens of thousands of dollars.
“Often the difference between a roof that stays on and one that flies off is the connection method,” Chapman-Henderson said. “A handful of additional nails can mean the difference.”
As the storm barreled down on the Panhandle coast last week, Christina Harding decided to hunker down with her partner and three children in the home they have lived in for two years.
They nervously watched as Michael’s ferocious winds ripped apart the trailer park across the street, hurling huge sections of it at their house, including several trash cans and pieces of the trailers’ roofs.
“Please don’t let it hit us,” Harding prayed.
Theirs was one of the five houses recently erected in the neighborhood by Habitat for Humanity, a global nonprofit organization that builds affordable homes. Harding, an office manager for a loan company, had worked alongside the builders, investing her own sweat equity to construct the house 1.5 miles from the bay. It was topped by a metal roof, but she had no idea how the house would fare in a storm.
When the winds died down, one of Harding’s daughters, who was away, was panic-stricken when she failed repeatedly to reach her mother by phone. Then she saw aerial photos of Panama City.
“When I saw those five metal roofs I knew the houses were good and you guys were good,” Harding said her daughter told her.
In all, the five Habitat houses lost some siding, an AC unit and one window.
“It’s just amazing,” Harding said.
Habitat for Humanity developed a reputation for creating storm-resistant structures after Hurricane Andrew. Its houses were built beyond code with hurricane ties, thicker lumber, windstorm plywood and metal roofs.
Harding’s home was built to what is known as “Fortified Gold” by the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS), a nonprofit, independent research organization that runs a program called Fortified a set of voluntary building standards “that go beyond code to help harden homes against Mother Nature.”
They work closely with roofers, builders and nonprofits groups to erect homes with wind protections that strengthen the roof, with roof-to-wall attachments and stronger windows and doors.
Roy Wright, president and CEO of IBHS, said a critical issue is “to make sure the edge of roof will be able to withstand the wind so the roof won’t pop off.”
This can be done through special nails and metal attachments between the roof and the walls, he said.
“Homeowners have to demand that their homes are rebuilt in a strong way. There are a lot of shady actors who chase these storms and take advantage of people,” Wright said. “This is not something that costs tens of thousands of dollars, this is within reach of anyone to fortify their roof, windows and doors. Homeowners just have to be armed with the right questions.”
While not cheap, the cost of fortifying a house against hurricane-force winds is not as unaffordable as many homeowners think, he said. He said retrofitting a roof is about $1,000 for a 2,000-square-foot roof, the average size in the United States. When building a house from scratch, it could cost as little as 3 percent to 5 percent more “to harden the house, fortify the roof, windows and doors and tie the house together tightly from top to bottom” in some areas of the country, he said.
Hurricane-proofing also helps protect structures from projectiles, which can breach windows and doors and create upward pressure on the roof. Hurricane proofing should have shutters for all openings to prevent that, and the strongest protections include what is essentially bulletproof glass.
Garrett W. Walton, CEO of Rebuild Northwest Florida, a nonprofit organization launched in the wake of Hurricane Ivan in 2004, has helped 14,000 homeowners in the Pensacola region to fortify homes built before Florida’s statewide building codes came into effect.
The group, which uses funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, puts the cost of bringing a house up to statewide standards at $9,200.
The benefits, the group says, include having a safer home as well as potential discounts on insurance and less likelihood of being displaced. He said the homes were tested in tornadoes and fared very well.
While homes built before World War II tend to do well in storms, those built during the postwar baby boom period were constructed quickly and cheaply, leaving many homes vulnerable, Walton said.
In addition, those strong building codes put into place in 2001 did have exceptions, according to Chapman-Henderson, including the provision for the Panhandle, which was in place during the building boom of the early 2000s. In the Panhandle, the full code applied only to a one-mile strip along the coast, leaving houses built during that period further inland vulnerable to high winds.
Three years ago, Paul Jackson built a vacation home one block from the waterfront in Mexico Beach. He knew to expect that extra hurricane protection would amount to some 7 percent to 10 percent of construction costs. He said he invested closer to 15 percent of his $400,000 cost on added investments in insulated-concrete-form walls, instead of traditional wood construction.
But he also calculated that, even with those higher upfront costs, he would break even in six years, because of lower insurance rates and utility bills — fortified homes often have stronger windows that don’t leak air-conditioning, for instance.
And there was, of course, the incalculable savings in worry. He built to the IBHS Fortified Gold program.
Jackson said the door of his home was battered in by a piling that had ripped free from another home or dock. The house took in about three feet of water. But while his neighbors will have to start from scratch, he just has to replace cabinets, furniture and drywall.
About 50 miles inland, Jim Wise built his Blountstown house himself, with help from 10 or 12 members of his church, who set the framework and trusses, and a few drywall and plumbing contractors. He said the house was strapped down to the concrete floor — “That’s code. We wouldn’t skimp on that.” — and he followed professional advice to use extra nails and hurricane clips to attach the roof.
“It pays not to cut that stuff short,” said Wise, a former owner of several furniture stores.
The house survived five hours of nonstop wind and rain, Wise said. Four trees fell on his workshop, and the greenhouse lost a lot of plastic and fiberglass, but other than some damaged trim, the house weathered the storm just fine.
Following the state building codes alone can help, but it wasn’t a foolproof solution for Debbi and Jim Prantl.
When they saw their dream beachfront house on aerial footage on the news it had been torn from its pilings at least 12-feet tall and pushed entirely across U.S. Route 98. It was nearly intact except for one key detail.
“It used to be a four-story house,” Debbi Prantl said. “What you see here at ground level is the third floor and up there is the fourth floor. The second floor is that [rubble] underneath. We have no idea where the first floor went.”
But the hurricane-rated glass in what remains of the house was intact, Jim Prantl noted. The contents of the house were jumbled but remained.
“We had minimal flood insurance because we never imagined anything but wind damage,” Debbi Prantl said. “I don’t know what we do now. I don’t think it’s sunk in yet.”
In tiny Greensboro, Fla., many houses suffered, and the power is still out six days after Michael made landfall 80 miles away. But at least one house had no damage whatsoever — the Dezell House, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Built between 1912 and 1919 of cypress and yellow heart pine by the owner of a sawmill, the house is almost entirely original. The West Gadsden Historical Society re-shingled the roof five years ago, but the roof structure is unchanged, said Jane Clark, vice president of the society.
Not a drop of water infiltrated the Arts and Crafts, prairie-style home, which is unusual in the area because it was not elevated. James Dezell, who lived in Chicago and southwest Missouri after the Civil War, later became Greensboro’s first mayor.
“Nothing in the house, nothing, has been structurally modified in any way,” Clark said. “It is a true testimony to how things were built.”
Sellers and Wax-Thibodeaux reported from Washington. Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.