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Lessons from the storm

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

With the first rays of light the day after Hurricane Hugo plowed through South Carolina 20 years ago, those who waited out the storm got their first real look at the devastation.

On Pawleys Island, roofs and walls were ripped away, houses were torn from their pilings and others were reduced to rubble. On the south end alone, 44 homes were destroyed by the storm that arrived Sept. 22, 1989.

The damage was so severe that most people are surprised to learn Hugo was only a category 1 when it hit Georgetown County.

Though wind gusts up to 140 mph were recorded in the Birds Nest section of Pawleys Island, the extent of the damage had more to do with the way the buildings were constructed than with the ferocity of the storm, said Robert Cox, the chief building official for Georgetown County.

He joined the building department in December 1989, when property owners were starting to come in for permits to rebuild.

“Prior to Hugo, building codes existed, but it had been quite a few years since our last major storm,” he said. “There were a lot of years where we didn’t know what we were doing wrong. When Hugo hit, it was sort of a wake up call.”

As experts examined the wreckage, it became apparent more stringent building codes were needed.

“The evidence was laying right there on the ground,” Cox said. “You could see hurricane clips still attached with three nails when there were supposed to be nine, or something that was supposed to be nailed every 6 inches had only been nailed every 24 inches.”

In many cases, investigators found shoddy construction and shortcuts taken by builders were the cause of home loss. Fasteners were inadequate size or strength, roofs weren’t nailed properly, and bolts, nails and clips were made from materials that weren’t able to withstand coastal conditions and would corrode over time, weakening the structure.

When Hurricane Andrew hit Florida with brutal force three years later, that was the clincher.

“There was so much devastation as far as loss of property and those same folks who did the studies after Hugo finally woke up and said things needed to change.”

New products and methods were developed, construction standards changed and home inspections became more rigorous.

“In our next hurricane event, I think we’ll see a lot less property failure and property loss due to the new codes,” Cox said.

One of the most significant changes to the building codes is that buildings now have to be able to withstand wind loads of 130 mph. When Hugo hit, buildings were supposed to be constructed to withstand 90-mph winds.

“When the wind speed criteria changes, the whole construction of the house goes to a new level,” Cox said.

Houses built under the new standards are built with what’s referred to as a “continuous tie-down” system, meaning everything from the foundation to the roof is connected.

“They’re built to where if you could put a giant hook on top of the house and pick it up with a crane, everything would come up together,” Cox said. “Before, the houses were not connected to the foundation. They basically just sat on top of it and you would see instances where the house would be washed off the foundation.”

Likewise, roofs were often not nailed properly to the walls, Cox said.

Construction materials also started being manufactured differently after Hugo and Andrew. Nails and other materials are now specially coated to resist corrosion.

Another big change, Cox said, is how structures are inspected. Inspection departments are better trained and are held more accountable, he said. “Inspection departments have changed drastically,” he said. “They’re really under a microscope, because building departments are rated by ISO [International Organization for Standardization] that works for the insurance companies.”

The increased accountability ensures inspectors make certain contractors are nailing plywood correctly on the roof and using the correct number of nails in hurricane clips, along with other details that were often overlooked in the past.

The pilings for houses are also being buried deeper now. During Hugo, a number of houses on Pawleys Island were washed from their pilings by the storm surge.

“A lot of the reason those houses fell was because the pilings were not deep enough,” Cox said. “They were 10 to 20 feet deep, but that’s too shallow. When the storm surge washed the sand from the pilings, they tilted and the houses were washed off the foundations.”

Pilings are now driven until they won’t go any farther, usually 30 to 40 feet.

But Hugo and Andrew changed more than just building codes and methods, Cox said. They changed the mindset for a lot of folks. Cox recalled five or six concrete homes were built in the area after Hugo. Those can withstand winds up to 200 mph.

“We got a lot of things that made houses better from these storms,” Cox said. “If those two storms hadn’t hit, we would probably still be coasting and have no idea what was wrong with the way we were doing things.”

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