Rebuilding after a Hurricane: Read This First

Mounds of debris that used to be people’s homes and people’s lives, perhaps yours, pile along the streets in post-hurricane areas, long after the media trucks stop reporting on the disaster. Although it is hard to find hope here, many people choose to rebuild and re-establish the communities that they have formed.

If you feel the same, don’t let the task overwhelm you. An informed Homeowner, aware of the challenges and regulations at the beginning, will be the most successful in getting back into their Home again. Let’s make sure that You are successful.

Hurricane Andrew – Uneven damage pattern in Lakes by the Bay development – Photo and caption courtesy of NOAA

Not in Kansas Anymore*

The reality is that your house may not be able to be rebuilt exactly how it was before. Flood zones have changed or been updated, the Building Codes have certainly been updated, and prices have gone up. However, this also means that what you rebuild will be stronger against wind and flood. You will have minor or no repairs after The Next One. (And your energy bills should be markedly lower.)

You also have a chance to make the changes you wanted – perhaps a sunset view from a porch is now an option. Or bigger, newer windows. Perhaps just the newer roof you’d put off until tomorrow.

Hurricane Andrew – The marina Gables by the Sea after the storm surge – Photo and caption courtesy of NOAA

Flood Zones and Your Property

In the last 2 decades, LiDAR has been used for topographic mapping, which in turn has given us detailed Flood Maps. In just the last 5 years, both Tampa Bay and Southwest Florida flood zones were updated. Scientists now have a better understanding of how water inundates the coasts, and how it recedes or leaves. It also reinforces our understanding that barrier islands protect the mainland, and sand dunes protect the barrier islands. FEMA and Building Codes encourage us to build out of the way of Mother Nature, or else to build up higher or stronger.

Your current flood zone may require you to rebuild your home higher than it was before, whether on stilts or just a crawl space. The CCCL (Coastal Construction Control Line) may even require your home to be rebuilt further from the water. Zoning setbacks may have also been revised since your home was built. Even if your home is not required to be raised by FEMA rules, there may be a requirement in your Zoning Ordinance that your rebuilt home’s lowest floor be higher than the crown of the road. A Design Professional should research all these items before beginning any design.

If your home was flooded or substantially damaged, but is still standing, you should be aware that the FEMA 50% Rule may apply to you, too.

To understand what flood zone your property is in, and learn how to estimate the FEMA 50% Rule for your home, access our FEMA Primer for Homeowners in Video format on YouTube or request a downloadable PDF on our website.

Regardless of the extent of damage, when it comes to rebuilding your home, we always encourage people to play it safe, and be conservative. You can always build it a little higher than required, a little further back from the water, etc.

Hurricane Andrew – A piece of plywood driven through the trunk of a royal palm – Photo and caption courtesy of NOAA

Hurricane Wind Requirements

In August 1992, my best friend left Virginia to start college in Miami. Several days later, Category 5 Hurricane Andrew struck. Luckily, the dorms survived, and so did my friend, but the area was a disaster. This began the 10-year path to a statewide building code based on studies of what had failed on buildings, and what had held strong. We learned that keeping the wind out, and tying the building to the ground, is what worked. In 2004, Category 4 Hurricane Charley took a turn in the middle of the night and slammed into Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte. Many people had to rebuild their homes, but this time, to the newly enforced Building Code. In 2022, Hurricane Ian tested those rebuilt homes, and we were relieved by how well they stood up.

What worked? Hurricane straps, or metal clips, connect the roof trusses to the walls and connect the walls to the foundation. Because in a hurricane, the roof just acts like a big umbrella in a rainstorm. Impact (hurricane) doors, windows, and shutters, which keep out wind and rain. Additional nails, longer and spaced closer together, on roofs and walls. And wind testing on shingles, soffits, siding, and other outdoor products, to make sure they stay on the house despite the weather.

According to the Building Code, the minimum wind speed is based on statistical risk (higher on the coasts and the farther South you go), but you can always build to above code. For example, Pinellas County requires homes to meet 145 mph (Category 4), but there is nothing preventing you from building to 157 mph (Cat 5) or higher.

Hurricane Andrew – WSI radar composite of Andrew making landfall August 24, 1992, at Dade County, Florida – Photo and caption courtesy of NOAA

Construction Prices and the Supply Chain

For middle-income additions and major remodels here in Tampa Bay, the average construction cost went from about $250 PSF (per square foot) before COVID to $350 less than 2 years later. This is a 140% increase! (Additions, major remodels, and custom homes typically cost more to construct than a house in a new subdivision. Don’t be fooled by the $160 PSF average construction price there.)

COVID boosted prices both due to the increase in remodeling (everyone was busy) and supply chain issues (some products are still hard to get). We are bracing for another increase here in Florida as people rebuild after Hurricane Ian.

Don’t discount alternative construction methods, either. Although most homes are built with concrete blocks (CMU) and wood, there are also SIPs (structural insulated panels), concrete, and steel. Sometimes the upfront cost may be higher, but construction may be faster, or insurance premiums may be lower, than a conventional building. Ask Design Professionals and Contractors about these options.

Tour Villa Aurora Miami, Florida – Photo and caption courtesy of US Dept. of HUD

How Long Does It Take?

Timing will be tricky to predict. First, you need to research and find a Design Professional who is available, and experienced in coastal building. Typically, a custom home can take a year to design. There are a lot of decisions to make, so you don’t want to rush this. During the design process, a Surveyor and possibly a Geotechnical Engineer will provide information as well. We usually use a Structural Engineer for consulting on our projects in flood zones, too.

Talking to a couple Residential Contractors will help with preliminary pricing, especially if they can review the drawings before all the final decisions are made. A nominal fee for a construction estimate is a good investment. (If you are remodeling, choose someone with remodeling experience, and if building new, choose someone with that experience.) Once the drawings are completed, you can ask for a revised or final Bid, and choose your Contractor. (Typically, the Contractor applies for the Permit, but sometimes, your Design Professional will offer this service.)

After the drawings are submitted to the Building & Zoning Office, it just depends on how busy the Reviewers are. Expect several weeks at least, which may increase to several months as more people start the rebuilding process. When the Contractor is notified that the Permit is approved, allow a few weeks for Demolition and preparing the property for construction.

A custom home can take about a year or two to build, depending on the size of the house, the availability of materials (products), and the weather. Don’t forget landscaping the property, adding a pool, or coordinating the interior design. Ask your Design Professional and Contractor for recommendations.

View from NOAA’s ship base in Miami at sunset – Photo and caption courtesy of NOAA

The End Is the Beginning

Therefore, prepare to live somewhere else for at least 2-3 years. Don’t rush into anything. Take your time in finding the Right People to add to your Rebuilding Team. Run some rough numbers on how much you want to invest in your new home.

And keep your eye on the prize! You will be extremely happy when you can at last sink into your own chair in your own home and turn on your own TV to listen to the weather report. Or not.

* In the movie The Wizard of Oz, after a tornado picks up her house and drops it in a magical land, with her in it, Dorothy says to her dog, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Published by designfreedominc

Your Forever Home Architect

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