Saturday, August 06, 2005

Clary's Political Wind

Even though the wind zones are based on science, exceptions were made, particularly in the Panhandle. Steve Pfeiffer, a Tallahassee attorney who once chaired the Florida Building Commission, explained: "There are scientific wind speed zones and there are political wind speed zones."

-- Palm Beach Post, Dec. 19, 2004

We live in a disgraceful age when science, integrity, and reality are struggling not to be swamped by factless faith, corporate greed, and a priori ideology. As the Union of Concerned Scientists puts it:
Across a broad range of issues — from childhood lead poisoning and mercury emissions to climate change, reproductive health, and nuclear weapons — the [Bush] administration is distorting and censoring scientific findings that contradict its policies; manipulating the underlying science to align results with predetermined political decisions; and undermining the independence of science advisory panels by subjecting panel nominees to political litmus tests that have little or no bearing on their expertise; nominating non-experts or underqualified individuals from outside the scientific mainstream or with industry ties; as well as disbanding science advisory committees altogether.
Stem cell research is curtailed, global warming ignored, clean water laws diluted, sex education perverted, family planning handicapped, and even teaching evolution of the species in science class is under attack.

The assault on science isn't confined to the current gang in Washington. We have our own home-grown luddites here in Northwest Florida. Near the head of the pack is state senator Charlie Clary (R-Destin).

Clary is a physician, to be sure, and therefore one from whom you might have expected more rather than less scientific rationality. But Clary also is a politician.

In the year 2000, when the state building code was adopted by the Florida state legislature to replace a hodge-podge of local and county building standards, state senator Clary tacked on a little-noticed amendment that exempted a dozen Northwest Florida counties. Thus, local builders were left free to continue erecting homes and businesses a mile or more inland from the coast which are not as hurricane-resistant as state standards would have required.

The Palm Beach Post alluded to this sordid political manuevering last winter. Four years earlier, it observed, state senator Clary --
saw to it that the Panhandle, from Franklin to Escambia counties, was permitted wind-resistance requirements that extended no more than 1 mile inland. Beyond that, new homes would not be required to have hurricane shutters, impact-resistant windows or special engineering to keep them intact in hurricane winds. Engineers had recommended shutters an average of 4 to 5 miles inland in the Panhandle. Clary supported builders' argument that no Category 4 (131-155 mph) hurricane had hit the area since 1886. "History's shown us that we're doing the right thing," he told reporters at the time.
This year, even as Panhandle area residents were still picking through the Hurricane Ivan debris that gave the lie to the state senator's argument, Clary stubbornly continued to insist that lesser building standards were good for the Panhandle. To the Palm Beach Post he claimed, "the exempted safeguards wouldn't have helped much... surging water and not wind caused the worst damage."

Try telling that to residents of north Pensacola, Gulf Breeze, Milton, Bagdad, Century, or any number of other inland cities and towns. It should be a tough sell next year when Clary hits the campaign trail for reelection.

In 2005, a bare majority of the legislature managed to commission a "study" for the purpose of determining whether "Clary's Exemption" should be removed. In last Saturday's Gainsville Sun, Lloyd Dunkleberger describes the coming collision between fact and faith:
You're more likely to be hit by a hurricane if you live in the Florida Panhandle than any other region of the state, with the exception of Southeast Florida.

Yet, when state lawmakers passed a new building code in 2000 - that took effect two years later - they carved out an exemption for 12 Panhandle counties.

The toughest building standards, designed to protect homes from flying debris in hurricanes, only apply to construction within a mile of the coast in those regions. Now, following Hurricane Dennis last month and the more-devastating Ivan that struck the region last year, some are raising new questions about the Panhandle exemption, which stretches from eastern edge of Franklin County to the Alabama-Florida line. Lawmakers debated the exemption during their 2005 session.

* * *

[I]t's clear that the Panhandle is a major hurricane target. Based on data from the National Weather Service, 27 hurricanes have hit the region since 1900. Only Southeast Florida has seen more storms, with 28.

But proponents of the Panhandle exemption argue that while the region has more than its share of hurricanes, the area has historically avoided the most powerful and devastating storms. The Panhandle storms have all fallen below 131 mph winds, which is the minimum level for a Category 4 storm. In contrast, Southeast Florida and Southwest Florida have been hit by eight storms since 1900 that are at least a Category 4.
The leading "proponent" of the exemption, Clary, also argues that tougher building standards will raise the cost of housing. As local residents know all too well, though, that's a phony calculation that doesn't take into account the cost and heartache of fighting with property insurance companies, repairing, and rebuilding every few years.

On average, according to Hurricane City, Pensacola gets "brushed or hit every 3.05 years" by a named storm and suffers a direct hit "every 8.93 years." In just the last ten years we've seen four major hurricanes make landfall in the immediate Pensacola area, and several lesser tropical storms do substantial wind damage. Weather experts now are saying at best they think we have entered a "multi-decadal cycle" of increasingly strong, more numerous, and more damaging tropical storms.
On average, [NOAA lead meteorologist Gerry] Bell said, "we can certainly expect to see more hurricane damage" as the active cycle continues for the next 10 to 20 years. "We expect more hurricanes striking the United States."
At worst, a new study by M.I.T. Professor Kerry Emanuel suggests global warming is leading to "an upward trend in [hurricanes'] destructive potential, and -- taking into account an increasing coastal population -- a substantial increase in hurricane-related losses in the 21st century... ."

Dress it up as he will, the suspicion lingers that state senator Clary's objection to strengthening the state building code in Northwest Florida doesn't have much to do with public safety, sound building practices, housing market prices, hurricane history -- or science. Instead, it looks more like an old-fashioned political pay-off for corporate campaign contributions.

In 2002, when Clary last stood for election, the real estate industry was among his top campaign financial supporters. He collected at least $65,508 in cash contributions from real estate, construction, and developer lobbies (not counting other gifts identified only as coming from "lawyers and lobbyists," many of whom likely serve the same interests). That's nearly twice as much as the contributions Clary received from his fellow medical professionals ($33,200)!

Check it out at Follow the Money. So far, it seems, Clary's "political wind zone" has triumphed over scientific wind speed.

As storm recovery efforts continue some 11 months after Ivan, Panhandle voters ought to start asking themselves whether they can afford to send "hurricane Charlie Clary" back to Tallahassee for another term.


Cathy said...

If your statistics are correct, this is an alarming report! We live less than one mile from the Gulf of Mexico and did indeed, sustain damage in Ivan and Dennis. Most of our damage came from a tornado, however, which would not be covered under the wind damage clause, rather it was covered under the natural disaster clause. But I do see your point.

The houses in our area are not new. My home was built in 1984 and it withstood quite a beating, but it did stand. Building codes weren't so strick back in 1984, but the integrity of the builders was more intact! The quality of our home far exceeds any new home built in our area!

I will be checking your statistics and if I can verify them, Charlie Clary will not get re-elected by my vote!

_bsjones said...

I have to agree that new building standards regarding wind damage from hurricanes should be adopted further inland. Many of the changes in new construction standards have proven themselves to be well worth the cost incurred during major storms—a cost that is not nearly as high as we’ve been led to believe when included with new construction. Yet the cost of not including these standards, as well as not including some sort of retrofit in repairs to damaged houses, is something that affects all insured homeowners, no matter what precautions they take to protect their own property.

Hurricane Ivan resulted in an estimated $7.1 billion in insurance payouts as of July 2005, according to Insurance Services Office, Inc. Property Claims Service. Since flooding is not covered by property insurance, almost all of these losses are attributed to wind damage. The higher the insured losses from a storm, the more we can expect our insurance premiums to rise. It doesn’t matter if the insurance companies are still making a profit—if the cost of insuring threatened areas rises, then insurance premiums will be raised accordingly.

Yet these requirements can still only be expected of new construction or extensive renovation. Existing houses will remain vulnerable to hurricanes until they’re remodeled, repaired or destroyed. I think it’s just important that people are informed and, by some means, given a direct incentive for renovating their houses to bring them up to standards close to that of the High Velocity Hurricane Zone of Miami-Dade and Broward counties. I think people need to know and understand that they can do something to protect their property to keep the costs of these storms down.

It’s important that the Florida Building Commission understand that the economic importance of protecting property extends beyond its effect on individuals, although that should be regarded as a significant incentive for employing stricter building codes. The economic impacts of damage on the scale of Ivan or a potentially worse storm far outweigh its effects on builders and would be well worth the cost and added peace of mind for all Florida homeowners.

michi said...

I agree and Charlie Clary will not be going back to office with my vote. I work in Property Management and I can vouch for just how important it is to have tougher building codes. They make a world of difference.

I think it is important for people to understand that new codes do not affect established houses until a time of renovation or new construction, but I agree that homeowners would be more susubtable to making improvements or such if they were offered an incentive. I think as home or business owners we all need to realize that we have a responsibity to protect our property and try and keep the cost down.