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As they built their dream house last year on the shimmering sands of the Gulf of Mexico, Russell King and his nephew, Dr. Lebron Lackey, painstakingly documented every detail of the elevated construction, from the 40-foot pilings buried into the ground to the types of screws drilled into the walls. They picked gleaming paints from a palette of shore colors, chose salt-tolerant species to plant in the beach dunes and christened their creation the Sand Palace of Mexico Beach, reported The New York Times (US).
They also installed an outdoor security camera. Its video footage became the only view of their property as Hurricane Michael thundered ashore last week, the most intense storm recorded in the history of the Florida Panhandle.
The camera showed a horrifying tunnel of gray fury worsening by the hour as Dr. Lackey, a 54-year-old radiologist, stared helplessly from more than 400 miles away at the corner of his roof.
“It would buck like an airplane wing,” he said from his residence in Cleveland, Tenn. “I kept expecting to see it tear off.”
But it didn’t. When The New York Times published an analysis of aerial images showing a mile-long stretch of Mexico Beach where at least three-quarters of the buildings were damaged, Dr. Lackey saw his sand palace still standing, majestic amid the apocalyptic wreckage, the last surviving beachfront house on his block.
“We wanted to build it for the big one,” he said. “We just never knew we’d find the big one so fast.”
The story of how the sand palace made it through Michael while most of its neighbors collapsed is one about building in hurricane-prone Florida, and how construction regulations failed to imagine the Category 4 monster’s catastrophic destruction.
Florida’s building code, put into effect in 2002, is famously stringent when it comes to windstorm resistance for homes built along the hurricane-prone Atlantic shoreline. But it is less so for structures along the Panhandle, a region historically unaffected by storms as strong as the ones that have slammed into South Florida.
After Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 beast, ravaged Miami-Dade County in 1992, new construction in the southern portion of the state was required to withstand 175-mile-an-hour winds. In the coastal Panhandle counties affected by Michael, the requirement is lower, for 120 to 150 miles an hour, and the rules for certain kinds of reinforcement have applied to houses built more than a mile from shore only since 2007. Many of the residences and businesses rubbed out by Michael in Mexico Beach were far older; rebuilding them to conform to the new code will be expensive, and could price out some of the working-class people who historically have flocked to Mexico Beach.
Mr. King wouldn’t say how much he and Dr. Lackey spent to fortify the beachside home, which public records show has been assessed for tax purposes at a value of $400,000. Their architect, Charles A. Gaskin, said that building a house the way they did roughly doubles the cost per square foot, compared with ordinary building practices.
Other experts had different views of the expense required. An estimate published in Forbes in 2012 said implementing an array of storm-resistance measures, including some of those advised by the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, would add more than $30,000 to the cost of a typical house.
“Every time something like this happens, you have to say to yourself, ‘Is there something we can do better?’” Gov. Rick Scott told reporters, as public officials were called upon once again to examine the state’s building standards.
“When I saw this hurricane’s wind speeds, I knew: You could only hope there would not be too many fatalities,” said Charlie Danger, a retired Miami-Dade building chief who crusaded for stricter windstorm codes. “It pays to rebuild structures that withstand something like that. You minimize the loss of life — and the loss of infrastructure. If you lose the infrastructure, you lose everything.”
Dr. Lackey said he and Mr. King, who jointly own the Mexico Beach house, did not even refer to the minimum wind resistance required in Bay County. They built the sand palace to withstand 250 mile-an-hour winds.
The house was fashioned from poured concrete, reinforced by steel cables and rebar, with additional concrete bolstering the corners of the house. The space under the roof was minimized so that wind could not sneak in underneath and lift it off. The home’s elevation, on high pilings, was meant to keep it above the surge of seawater that usually accompanies powerful hurricanes.
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