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Storm inspection season nears close

By IVAN PENN
Published November 23, 2006


From the time Cathy Willis moved into her St. Petersburg home a year ago, she knew it might be vulnerable to a hurricane.

But it wasn't until she ordered a free inspection through the state's My Safe Florida Home program that she began to learn just how troubled her one-story, block home is.

No clamps to secure the roof to the frame. No hurricane-rated windows. And the enclosed back porch does not qualify as part of the main house.

"I'm a New Yorker, so I don't know anything about hurricanes," Willis said. But "we realized something needed to be done."

Willis is one of the 12,000 Floridians whose names made the list for free home inspections during the pilot phase of the state program that ends with the close of hurricane season Nov. 30. The Legislature allocated $250-million for the program as a way to strengthen homes and reduce insurance premiums.

The unprecedented effort is hailed in most every quarter as a critical step in protecting homeowners.

"The alternative is the hurricanes would come along and only the strong homes will be left," said Bill Newton, executive director Florida Consumer Action Network.

Hundreds of inspectors hired through the state program are racing through 11 counties, including Pinellas and Hillsborough, to meet the deadline imposed by state Chief Financial Office Tom Gallagher, who oversees My Safe Florida Home.

More than 50,000 other homeowners who requested the free inspections will remain on a growing waiting list until the program picks up again in early 2007.

Willis is one of the lucky ones, among 3,300 in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Sarasota and Manatee counties who will have their homes inspected during the pilot program.

Home inspector James Calleri of Affirmative Home Inspections Inc., a Hernando County firm, was sent to Willis' home this week.

In less than 30 minutes, Calleri checks the entire exterior of Willis' home and inspects the attic to examine the roof's structure, as he does as much as a dozen times a day for the My Safe Florida Home program. The state says it pays the inspectors an average of $150 for each job.

"I do need you to verify my ID badge," Calleri tells Willis before he begins the inspection.

He gives an overview of what Willis can expect during the next half-hour.

"I'm going to be checking the foundation," Calleri tells Willis. "I'm going to be checking your windows and see if they're hurricane-rated. I'll need to get into your attic.

"Basically what I'm checking for is seven things," he says, which come from a state checklist for each inspector hired for the jobs: the roof deck attachment; secondary water barrier; roof covering; brace gable ends; reinforced roof-to-wall connections; opening protection; and exterior doors, including garage doors.

With an electronic device, Calleri scans the base of the exterior walls searching for the connections to the foundation. Another electronic tool measures the size of windows and doors.

He climbs his ladder into Willis' attic, a narrow space too small for him to step up into. He pokes his head in and peers around with his flashlight.

He looks at the nails used for the roofing, how long they are and the distance between them. He's checking to see how the roof is attached to the frame, whether by nails, clips or ties.

"All right, I've seen everything I have to see up there," Calleri says.

"So is my roof attached?" Willis asks.

Just with nails, Calleri tells her, not with the stronger clips or ties that are recommended. But he tells her he's not qualified to give an analysis, "I'm just gathering the information."

The state will issue Willis a report, detailing Calleri's findings and recommendations for improvements. If she follows the recommendations, the state will match up to $5,000 for the cost of the work.

Wrapping up his day, Calleri hands Willis three brochures with tips for people with disabilities, wildfires and keeping safe after a storm.

"Good luck," Calleri tells her. "In 30 days you'll hear from them."

Ivan Penn covers consumer issues and can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or 727 892-2332.