Bubil: Building code ignores tornadoes


Florida is known for its exciting weather, including tropical storms, floods, hurricanes and intense thunderstorms.

It also is a national leader in the number of reported tornadoes, ranking third with an average of 66 per year from 1991-2010; only Texas and Kansas had more. Fortunately, these whirlwinds tend to be over water (waterspouts) or relatively weak.

But it can happen. A deadly tornado hit Venice in 1985. In 1998, an outbreak of F3 tornadoes, the worst in Florida history, killed 42 people in the Kissimmee area. Still, we rarely get the F3-5 tornadoes that ravage the Tornado Alley states each spring.

So there is one good thing about our weather, other than the obvious mild temperatures and abundant sunshine.

The subject of tornadoes came up earlier this month when I attended the National Hurricane Conference in Orlando. Lecturer Joe Warnes, while noting the recent decimation of such towns as Tuscaloosa, Ala., Moore, Okla., and Joplin, Mo., by monstrous tornadoes that approached 5 on the Fujita Scale, complained that tornado mitigation is ignored by the International Residential Code for building construction.

“The IRC includes provisions in significant detail for hazards that challenge owners of American-style homes being built even today, such as seismic, floods, hurricanes and insects,” said Warnes, a structural engineer. “The subject of tornado-force winds is not acknowledged — not a word.

“This may become astonishing news someday to all of the homeowners who lost family members and their possessions to tornadoes,” he told me in an email.

“The millions of people who live in tornado country may even be outraged to learn about the fact that their houses will not likely survive a big one. Every existing homeowner in tornado country should be considering a FEMA-type shelter.”

Better yet, said Warnes and co-lecturer Dr. Ken Luttrell, building a reinforced concrete house is good insurance against all manner of natural disasters.

“The U.S. government invested around $650 million (in today’s dollars) 50 years ago in Guam, which included design and construction of houses that would survive big winds and earthquakes. And the houses have performed flawlessly,” he said.

“Today’s government agencies, like FEMA, do not seem to know much about it.”

Houses with built with poured-solid insulated concrete form walls are gaining in popularity in Florida, but Warnes said, “The walls are not going to do it; you have to do the roof, too.”

Harold Bubil

Recipient of the 2015 Bob Graham Architectural Awareness Award from the American Institute of Architects/Florida-Caribbean, Harold Bubil is real estate editor of the Herald-Tribune Media Group. Born in Newport, R.I., his family moved to Sarasota in 1958. Harold graduated from Sarasota High School in 1970 and the University of Florida in 1974 with a degree in journalism. For the Herald-Tribune, he writes and edits stories about residential real estate, architecture, green building and local development history. He also is a photographer and public speaker. Contact him via email, or at (941) 361-4805.
Last modified: April 26, 2014
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