Building codes have changed in 25 years since Hurricane Andrew

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This week marks an anniversary Florida can never forget: 25 years ago, a tropical storm was taking aim at Florida.  It grew into Hurricane Andrew and slammed South Florida on August 24.

The state learned from that disaster and created a state-wide building code designed to protect more buildings and save lives when future hurricanes strike the state.

However, consumer watchdogs are sounding alarms over the legislature's decision to alter the building rules. They claim state lawmakers passed legislation that will weaken Florida's building code 25 years after Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida.

Hurricane Andrew smashed entire blocks of homes and wiped out communities in the Miami area from Homestead to Kendall to Florida City. Homes washed together into mounds of splinters, but some homes fared better than others. Some of the homes that were destroyed were predominantly built from particle board, and roofs were not nailed into the homes.

That's when it dawned on state leaders that some homes were built to higher standards than others and that Florida needed to beef up the building code across the board.

So after Andrew, state leaders required tougher inspections, and they created a statewide code-to require new construction withstand hurricane-force winds, among other changes. Building inspectors said Florida learned its lesson from Andrew by developing the strongest building rules in the nation.

"They're minimal mind you. The codes are minimal. You want to make sure it meets the minimal standards for life safety," said Mike Rimoldi, senior vice president of the consumer group FLASH -- the Federal Alliance of Safe Homes. "We're concerned they're (the legislature) changing something that worked really well… You could have homes not built as could have been… The worst-case scenario could be we could be back where we were around the time of Hurricane Andrew, where different jurisdictions are upholding different standards"

In short, the federal government keeps revising the national building rules to keep up with research and technology and changes in the construction industry, and Florida has been automatically working those updates into its building code. But state lawmakers just made those updates optional, meaning from now on they'll pick and choose what they adopt from the feds.

"It's not a one-size-fits-all country. The soil and wind loads are much different in Florida than they are in Nebraska," said State Sen. Wilton Simpson (R-Pasco), the Senate majority leader. 

The idea behind the changes is to make the code more relevant to Florida, and to simplify the code process.
"There is no evidence, by allowing this flexibility in the new bill we passed, will weaken the code," said State Sen. Darryl Rouson, (D-Pinellas/Hillsborough).

But consumer watchdogs say the more we test, the more we learn, and that we could lose updates that in turn weaken the code relative to national standards. 

Critics of the building code changes also fear it will reduce or remove discounts we get on flood insurance. State lawmakers say they wrote safeguards into the bill to make sure that does not happen.