Hurricane Irma and the neighborhood of McMansions

posted by Jeff | Monday, September 11, 2017, 8:27 PM | comments: 0

If there's any takeaway from HGTV, it's that a lot of people really hate big new construction neighborhoods and production builders, because of something about cookie cutters or something. Me, I'm not really that picky, because my house doesn't need to be a snowflake, I just really want to like the floorplan. My neighborhood is a Starwood development, and last count I think there were a total of eight builders, plus a series of customs on the lake, so there is actually a fair amount of variety. Actually, KB Home allowed way too many of the one model with the same front elevation, but it's not intolerable.

There is a win in all of this new construction though, in that it all had to be built to more stringent building codes that came after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and the triple storms of 2004. As we're now getting closer to the completion of our second Florida house, I'm totally amazed at the way these things are built. And now that I've experienced a storm transitioning from Category 2 to 1 with its center about 50 miles away, inside of one of these houses, I don't think the building code is overkill.

To start, the first floor is made of concrete block. Rebar buried in the concrete slab is tied up through the block to the wood structure above, whether that's the roof or the second floor. Bundles of 2x4's around the perimeter and even in the middle of the house are strapped down to the foundation and metal straps secure the roof. In the new house, this was particularly impressive in the two-story living room, because you could see how one of the main roof trusses were tied down all the way to the floor. There are also some things about physics and negative pressure that apparently also contribute to keeping a roof on. And stucco is a kind of cement, so it's super durable on the outside.

Being this far inland from both coasts has its advantages too, in that a storm has to be dragged across land to get to us, and that limits the destructive potential to a degree, especially without storm surge. I know the talking heads on the TV (I have a lot of thoughts about that, for another post) would have you believe that all of Florida was going to sink into the ocean, but the science is such that odds are pretty low to have a storm of such consequence that modern houses would suffer massive destruction. Older homes, or those not retrofitted with more current code standards, would be vulnerable. But you know, these so-called cookie cutters can take a beating. We got to see it with sustained winds over 50 mph and gusts in the 70 to 80 range. It was fucking terrifying, but the extent of our damage is some water seepage along the floor on the southern side, where the utilities come in.

This unusual storm had a lot of energy after passing by without the moisture. I didn't really sleep much, and when I tried at 8 a.m., I couldn't. So I went for a walk, perhaps unwisely as it was still blowing at a solid 30 mph. The retention ponds were very high, and the adjacent lake was at least 3 feet higher than normal, but together there was no imminent threat of flooding. Lots of trees were down, but not broken, a phenomenon we used to see almost every thunderstorm the first year we were here. (The soil of the mature tree root balls doesn't match the sandy stuff they're put into, so they tend to rotate almost like they're in a socket joint.) Some of the houses on the hill lost some shingles, though there's some speculation about whether that's due to the builder or the location. Lots of fence damage, too. Most annoyingly, the cheap boxes where the cable company stashes their house connections were all over the neighborhood. Mine only migrated as far as our bushes. Our neighborhood has been an oasis of sorts, because we did not lose power.

Despite what seems like an arbitrary curfew lasting until 6 p.m., the people in our neighborhood were out everywhere, helping each other clean up, sharing stories and in some cases beverages. Kids were out playing after being holed up for 36 hours. I've never seen this many people out and roaming about. It was nice to see people engaging like that as a community.

Now that the worst has passed, it's sad that there are places in the Caribbean that are uninhabitable and running out of food. And the coastal impact in Florida wasn't anything like we expected, where Tampa ended up relatively unscathed, but Jacksonville got nailed. The size and scope of this storm broke all of the rules. At the end of the day, all we really lost was a night of sleep. We've got friends coming over to at least get showers and phones charged, as they're still powerless and might be for a few days. It's important to keep perspective, for sure. I'm thankful our unoriginal home kept us safe.


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