Preparing for "the Big One"

Julie Ruth
January 15, 2013
COLUMN : Code Arena | Codes & Standards

“This is going to be a big one,” the retired fire official from New Jersey said. “This thing is huge, and the states it’s going to hit aren’t used to being hit by this kind of storm.”

He pointed to an image of the Hurricane Sandy weather system on his laptop screen, dubbed “Frankenstorm” due to the combination of storms that had spawned it and its expected Halloween landfall. The swirling wind pattern was not heading towards the Caribbean or Florida. Instead, it was heading toward a much larger land mass; the image indicated an entire continent was in the path of this storm.

“They are expecting it to hit somewhere near New Jersey and New York City within the next few days, and I need to get home as soon as I can,” he said. This was five days before Halloween. The retired fire official―along with several hundred others, predominately code officials, fire officials and industry representatives―were gathered in Portland for the Final Action Hearings of the ICC Group A codes. The task at hand was to finalize the content of the 2015 International Building Code, along with the other ICC Group A codes.

Over the next couple of days, he and several other code and fire officials from the East Coast scrambled to return home before the storm hit. “Why?” one hotel employee asked. “I would think they would prefer to stay here until after the worst was over.”  “Because they knew they were needed at home” was the answer.

I have a great deal of respect for these individuals: Bob Davidson, John Terry, Stephen Jones and many others. It’s one thing to sit in a hearing room and discuss concepts about how to build safe buildings. It’s another to try to prepare a community for the type of destruction they might experience, and to deal with the after-effects of severely damaged homes, injured citizens, massive power outages, and in some cases, impassable streets.

Lessons Learned
This type of incident causes us “codies” to ask: What lessons can we learn from this?

When Hurricane Andrew hit the Bahamas, Florida, the Gulf of Mexico and Louisiana 20 years ago with wind speeds in excess of 175 mph, it caused an estimated $26 billion in damage. Miami-Dade County, Fla., and then the entire state of Florida, responded aggressively to the destruction. Florida now has the most stringent wind-load and opening protection provisions of any code in the U.S. And there has been some evidence that these more stringent provisions have been effective in reducing damage and death caused by hurricanes. Although Hurricane Charlie caused $16 billion worth of damage when it hit Florida 12 years after Hurricane Andrew with sustained wind speeds of 150 mph, much of the destruction was to homes and buildings that were built before the state of Florida began enforcing the Florida Building Code in 2001. Follow-up inspections by code officials and members of the insurance industry confirmed that buildings built to the 2001 or 2004 Florida Building Code withstood Hurricane Charlie’s forces better than those that were not.

In contrast, Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana and parts of Alabama a year later with sustained wind speeds of 125 mph, remains the costliest of Atlantic hurricanes on record, with $108 billion in estimated damage. Other factors besides wind speed contributed to the size of this loss, of course. Perhaps the most significant of those factors was the fact that much of the populated area of New Orleans lay several feet below the level of the Gulf of Mexico, so flooding of heavily populated areas came with the high winds.

But it was clear that the states of Louisiana and Alabama were not as prepared for hurricanes as Florida is now, despite a long series of devastating storms to hit the area, including Hurricane Camille, which caused $1.4 billion in damage in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana in 1969.

The Florida codes continue to maintain the most stringent wind-load provisions of any U.S. state. The state of Florida is currently in the process of developing the 2013 edition of the Florida Building Code. Early in 2012, state officials announced they were “wiping out” all of the Florida amendments that had been made to previous editions of the International Codes. Officials said that if any party felt any of these amendments should be retained, they would need to submit them for consideration for the 2013 Florida Building Code and demonstrate that there was a “Florida specific need” for the amendment.

To date, a fairly high percentage of the previous Florida amendments have been submitted and approved for the 2013 Florida Building Code. AAMA has been actively involved in monitoring and lobbying for Florida-specific amendments, when deemed appropriate by its members.

The Situation in the Northeast
The states of New Jersey and New York have been enforcing the International Codes for several years. Code enforcement in these two states might not be as stringent as it is in Florida, but it does follow fairly close behind Florida and California. The destruction in New Jersey and New York following the “Frankenstorm” was not due to a failure to adopt the most recent construction codes, or a lack of enforcement. It’s more likely that other factors came into play.

First, many of the images that we’ve seen in the news and on the Internet are of damaged structures that are not governed by building codes. Examples include the boardwalk in Atlantic City and the Seaside Heights roller coaster.

Secondly, although the state of New York―as well as the state of New Jersey―has been enforcing local codes that are based upon the International Codes for more than 10 years now, the city of New York only began relying on them in 2008. The New York City Building Code that was in place prior was last updated in 1968. Significant changes have occurred in the design wind-speed provisions of ASCE 7 (and its predecessor standard), and FEMA’s flood plain provisions since 1968.

Third, much of the damage that occurred was to buildings, structures and infrastructure that predate not only the adoption and implementation of the International Codes, but even the 1968 edition of the New York City Building Code. For example, New York’s subway system is 108 years old, and some components of its electrical power grid are almost as old. Much of the housing stock damaged in the storm is also more than 50 years old.

From a code development standpoint, the question still remains: “Should changes be made to the current codes as a result of this event?”

The 2012 International Building Code requires Category II buildings in Long Island, N.Y., to be designed to resist the effects of a 120-to-130 mph wind. This places Category II buildings in Long Island in a hurricane-prone area where impact-resistant opening protectives are required. Category II buildings are all buildings except those of low occupancy, such as storage sheds; high occupancy, such as theatres; or essential facilities, such as hospitals and police stations.

Sandy’s wind gusts peaked at 89 mph, with sustained wind speeds of 55 mph to 60 mph. So, it would appear that the 2012 IBC’s wind-speed provisions were adequate with regards to this storm. This would also be true for the wind-speed provisions of ASCE 7-10, on which the 2012 IBC is based.

Section 1612 of the 2012 International Building Code also has extensive provisions for the design and construction of building floors that occur below the design flood elevation for the construction site. A quick scan of the FEMA flood plain maps indicate that these provisions could apply to new construction in much of Staten Island, Long Island and Brooklyn.

So if the current codes are adequate, what provisions should be put into place as a result of Hurricane Sandy?

That question is likely to be the subject of much debate over the next few years.

Code Arena is brought to you by the America Architectural Manufacturers Association. Julie Ruth may be reached through AAMA at 847/303-5664 or via e-mail at