State offers grants to protect homes from hurricanes

Beefing up your home against storm damage can be pricey, but help is available through a new state grant program.

Published August 22, 2006

The state started a program last week to help people harden their homes against hurricanes, but knowing what to retrofit is not as simple as it sounds.

"A lot of times, a 50-year-old house can withstand a hurricane a lot better than one built 10 years ago," said Bill Mason of Homeowners Insurance Inspection Services, a Sarasota companies that does wind inspections for insurance companies.

Building codes are stricter now, Mason said, but workmanship was so much better in the past. An older home might lack items like hurricane straps, but its rafters were built closer together, making a roof better able to withstand hurricane forces, he said.

To understand such details, the state's My Safe Florida Home program will offer free inspections that will tell where a home's weaknesses lie, and also give estimates on what reinforcements will cost and what discounts insurers will give once the work is done.

The program will then match up to $5,000 what homeowners spend for strengthening roof decking, improving a roof's waterproofing, enhancing the strength of roofing material, bracing gable ends, reinforcing roof-to-wall connections, protecting wall openings like windows and doors, and reinforcing doors, especially garage doors.

Most people know they need to cover their windows with shutters sturdy enough to repel wind-borne debris. If windows are broken during a storm, pressure from wind can pop off the roof, which is why present codes require new homes to have roofs tied tightly to walls. Such connections can be added to a home, but it's not easy.

"It's generally not cost-effective unless you're doing a major renovation and you have the wall exposed," said Tim Reinhold of the Institute for Business and Home Safety, an insurance industry research group. "When you start talking about getting into the structure, that's disruptive."

Joe Logar of AAA Services of Central Florida, a contractor that does retrofit work, said his crew installed hurricane straps after another contractor had completed a garage less than two years ago. He said just for that 440-square-foot area which was not part of the regular living space, it took more than 80 man-hours and cost $6,000. To do the same job on a home would be much more expensive and annoying.

"It's going to be a huge chore for a house," Logar said. "We don't get a lot of calls for it. It's such an expensive proposition, the attitude is, if we get that kind of wind, the roof is going to go anyway."

There are other techniques for holding a roof together, Reinhold said, including a variety of gluing methods that bind sheathing from the inside. The Institute for Business and Home Safety publishes a guide that describes such solutions.

Reinhold also said people generally think coastal homes are at greater risk from strong winds, but any home in an open area is in the same situation even if it's well off the coast, he said.

"If you're sitting on a lake or on the edge of a golf course, the wind forces are going to be greater on your home," he said. Homes more densely packed or surrounded by trees will feel less wind force, "but you might have the trees falling on you and there might be more debris in the air. You'd probably want to make sure to protect your windows."

Raw wind force is important for things like roof connections because the wind can pull your roof up from the top. Flat roofs are actually the most vulnerable.

Pressure can suck a roof off a house, but wind can also knock it apart from the side and underneath eaves. Securing gable ends is a cost-effective solution, Reinhold said.

Soffits are also a concern. Poorly built soffits fly apart in the wind and allow large amounts of wind-driven rain to enter an attic, soak insulation and even cave in ceilings on homes where the windows are still intact.

Some fixes can be cheap. Reinhold urges people to cover, repair or seal attic vents, weatherstripping, even cracks one might find in walls or around cable connections. Wind-driven rain can blow sideways for hours, meaning even a small breach in a home's skin can let water pour into an otherwise secure structure.

Homes built cheaply are the most vulnerable. Most experts agree the 1970s and '80s, the period when Florida saw relatively few hurricanes, is the era with the least structural integrity.

"In older homes, '40s, '50s, things are just more square," Logar said. "The laborers had a mentality of doing it right and being proud of what they build. Today, it's rare to find that in the construction industry."

Despite that, Mason said, insurers shy away from older homes. Proper inspections can show some people could get insurance discounts now, if they only knew details about their homes. For some, though, discounts might be their least concern.

"People should do (retrofits) more for availability of coverage and for peace of mind," said Mark Berset, chairman of St. Petersburg's Comegys Insurance Corner. "I'm excited about (the state grant program) because it most likely will be able to make wind coverage available to people who can't find it affordably now. It also could qualify some people for companies other than Citizens."