Shortly after 3:30 a.m. on Aug. 24, 1992, meteorologist Bryan Norcross grabbed his notebook and stepped off the set of WTVJ, Miami’s NBC affiliate, to head for the safest place in the station.
“When you see us move, and you’re watching us, we want you to move to your safe spot,” he said as a cameraman trailed.
Outside, debris was scattering across the streets and palm trees whipped in the wind as Hurricane Andrew was about to make landfall on the southern tip of Florida. By the time Andrew officially dissipated five days later, the category-5 hurricane had claimed 65 lives and destroyed 25,524 homes.
Two grand juries convened in the immediate aftermath of the storm found that homes in hard-hit Dade County (now Miami-Dade County) were especially vulnerable to the powerful hurricane because of a toxic trio of poor design, shoddy construction and inadequate inspection. (In Florida, grand juries can examine not just criminal matters but public policy issues and establish reports recommending changes to lawmakers.)
Worse, unlicensed contractors eager to cash in on the rebuilding boom were flooding the area and outnumbering licensed professionals at job sites. In just one example from the report, more than 60 percent of rebuilt roofs failed to pass inspection.
“Hurricane Andrew revealed loopholes in the building code and exposed the lax enforcement that had been going on for many years,” Norcross told The Washington Post in a 2017 interview.
Hurricane Andrew forced a reckoning that led to Florida establishing some of the toughest storm-specific building codes in the United States, if not the world. Now, in the wake of a deadly condo tower collapse in Surfside, Fla., on June 24, experts who lived through the post-Andrew aftermath expect similar changes to follow.
The exact cause of the collapse, widely considered Florida’s worst non-hurricane-related building disaster, will not be known for months, if not longer. But the calls for reforms in inspection and maintenance regulations — and accountability — have already begun. Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle has already promised a grand jury examination of the high-rise collapse like the ones she presided over after Hurricane Andrew in the ’90s.
Florida’s steady population growth spurred a building boom in the 1970s and 1980s, with new home construction often moving faster than local building inspectors could keep up. There was also the piecemeal nature of codes. The issue was not — and is still not — unique to Florida, according to Denis Hector, a structural engineer on the faculty of the University of Miami School of Architecture.
“The difficult thing about building codes are that they’re adopted locally,” Hector told The Post. Even after the International Building Code was first published in 1997, it has to be adapted and adopted by a local jurisdiction to become law.
And even natural disasters aren’t always enough to overcome a local population’s objections to new rules.
“As one Mississippi legislator said after an American Institute of Architects workshop on building codes in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina: ‘Mandatory building codes are term limits for elected officials,’ ” Hector said. “People didn’t want to be told what to do.”
Jaime Gascon, director of the Board and Code Administration in Miami-Dade County, remembers similar opposition when he was hired by the county in 1993 to fill a role that didn’t exist before Hurricane Andrew — product control inspector — and which was proposed as a result of the grand jury reports.
“We had all walks of life against (the new regulations),” he said. “The opposition was pretty much across the board.”
The regulations largely affected new construction, with the new rules applying to existing homes that met certain thresholds during an upgrade or renovation project. Homes that were more than 50 percent destroyed in the hurricane were also subject to the new codes upon reconstruction.
Three main pillars emerged from the Hurricane Andrew grand juries that would go on to form the basis of Florida’s dramatically different building regulations: New building codes, particularly as they related to wind resistance; product approvals for the construction materials manufactured and installed in homes; and education and certification for inspectors, building officials and plans examiners.
The on-the-ground changes, some of which were drawn from regulations used for years in Australia, where cyclones are common, represented a dramatic shift in the order of business in South Florida, Gascon said.
The Dade County building code compliance office would train and hire professors and instructors to teach classes for the inspection officials who needed certification. New buildings required durable, laminated glass and reinforced roof tiles. The county created impact-test protocols for building materials with rigorous standards. It was no longer enough to test a roof tie-down to see how far it could bend until it broke, Gascon said. Now multiple manufactured tie downs — not just a single prototype — had to be tested while attached to a roof to ensure that it could meet the demands of a future hurricane.
But imposing building restrictions in the cash-cow industry of a state known for its anti-regulatory streak was met with immediate resistance.
“The manufacturers who had to meet the impact tests were up in arms, saying it was going to put them out of business,” Gascon said. “The builders said it was cost-prohibitive and that it would make homes unaffordable.”
Some manufacturers initially refused to get on board, Gascon said.
“For probably close to a year, we only had one shingle manufacturer that was approved and was allowed to install shingles in Miami-Dade County,” he said. “But there’s someone who can meet the standards, so why can’t others?”
Over time, the regulations found a wider embrace. Neighboring Broward County adopted many of Dade County’s new codes, while Miami-Dade County-approved materials are now seen by many as a mark of good quality, akin to the “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval, Gascon said.
“The citizens in the area know these codes are stronger and they comment on that when they move out of the area,” Gascon said. “They look around and say, ‘Wow, we don’t build like this back home.’ As far up the Eastern Seaboard up to New York and in places as far away as Guam, we have people asking for Miami-Dade County-approved products.”
Debates over new regulations in Miami-Dade County have shifted to Surfside after the collapse of the Champlain Towers South. Most experts interviewed expect changes to the county’s 40-year safety inspection program, under which buildings must be recertified for safety after 40 years, and then every decade after that.
Officials in Surfside have already discussed narrowing the window from 40 years to 30 or 35, while town officials have called for legislative interventions as well. Peter Zalewski, a Florida condo industry analyst, expects condo associations themselves to be up for new regulations, too — including possible mandatory training for board members.
Gascon predicts that the tragedy in Surfside may also affect the sale of oceanfront high-rises, at least in the short-term.
“Some of the more recent rumblings around here are will (those condos) be as valuable because everyone is more cognizant of the maintenance now. Now it’s, ‘I see cracks in the concrete,’ and before it was just ‘the view is beautiful.’ “