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UF “Hurricane House” Shows Little Damage After Direct Hit By Hurricane Frances

Chuck Woods (352) 392-1773 x 281

Anita Neal, 772-462-1660
Pierce Jones, 352-392-8074
Susanne Murphy, 850-513-3750

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FORT PIERCE, Fla.— Built to withstand winds of more the 140 miles per hour, the University of Florida’s “hurricane house” survived Hurricane Frances when the eye of the storm passed through St. Lucie County.

“This was as close as you can get to a direct hit, and the hurricane house came through the storm with little or no damage,” said Anita Neal, the St. Lucie County extension director with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “Our hurricane house demonstrates that it is possible to build a home that will come through a category 4 or 5 hurricane such as Ivan.”

She said the 3,000-square-foot house next to the St. Lucie County extension office in Fort Pierce — officially known as the St. Lucie Windstorm Education Center — also shows how existing homes can be made more hurricane resistant. Materials, products and construction methods, which meet or exceed new state building codes, can be used in new homes or to retrofit existing structures.

Neal said new Florida building codes, which went into effect in March 2002, are stricter than the ones they replaced, but not as strong as those enacted in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. The stricter standards should be required statewide because no area of the state is immune to hurricane damage over the long term, she said.

The hurricane house in Fort Pierce is one of three facilities located at UF Extension Service offices around the state. Other hurricane houses are in Pensacola and St. Augustine, and a fourth house will be completed in April 2005 at UF’s Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center. The Florida Department of Financial Services provided $2.3 million for the houses, and UF’s Shimberg Center for Affordable Housing at the College of Design, Construction and Planning supervised their design and construction.

Neal said homeowners and builders can visit the hurricane demonstration houses in Fort Pierce, Pensacola and St. Augustine to see three types of window shutters and other features, such as impact-resistant doors, a steel “safe room” and a garage door that will withstand winds of more than 150 mph.

Visitors also can see exposed sections of interior walls that show alternative construction methods, such as insulated concrete forms, to build stronger and more energy-efficient homes. The insulated concrete form uses reinforcement bars and concrete sandwiched between plastic foam sheets.

Pierce Jones, director of the Florida Energy Extension Service at UF in Gainesville, said although the method is more expensive than regular concrete block or wood-frame construction, it is desirable in coastal areas where wind speeds are higher and storm-surge problems are more prevalent.

The new insulated concrete forms meet Florida building code requirements, but few builders have direct experience working with the materials, he said.

In the wake of two devastating hurricanes and another threatening Florida all in less than a month, the UF hurricane houses around the state are becoming magnets to educate builders and residents about wind-loss mitigation, energy efficiency and environmentally sensitive construction, Jones said.

Next month, the Florida Energy Extension Service will offer continuing education courses for contractors, architects and engineers on the new structural wind loading in the Florida Building Code. For information on these, call 352-392-5684.

Homeowners in coastal areas can take measures to reduce storm damage and lower their insurance rates, said Susanne Murphy, corporate counsel for Citizens Property Insurance Corp. in Tallahassee. The corporation was created by the Florida Legislature in 2002 to provide insurance for homeowners in high-risk areas and others who cannot find coverage in the private insurance market.

“Insurance premium costs for coastal homes have increased significantly over the past four years,” Murphy said. “But homeowners can save up to 45 percent on the wind portion of their premium if they use measures we suggest to protect their homes. Reinforcing the roof could bring a 35 percent credit, while reinforced window shutters could save as much as 20 percent on the wind premium.”

In St. Lucie County, the hurricane house is located at 8400 Picos Road in Fort Pierce, and can be reached by telephone at 772-462-1660.

In St. Johns County, the hurricane house is located at 3125 Agriculture Center Drive in St. Augustine, 904-824-4564.

In Escambia County, the hurricane house is located at 3740 Stefani Road in Cantonment, 850-475-5230.