Long ago I used to be a frequent visitor to Florida, particularly before the era of balmy winters in the mid-Atlantic region.

In those days, the Florida population was far smaller and much of what is now garden apartments and condos was then swamp, orchard, ranch land and piney woods. The epicenter of development was Miami and nearby locations, and even at that time "development" often meant fixing-up two-story motels along Collins Avenue.

As it happens I used to know one of the largest developers in the state and he would sometimes explain the logic behind various purchases and projects. Once he drove me onto a vast property in Palm Beach county and showed me a small corner lot. It had only cost $45 to purchase, he said proudly, and years later it was worth $60,000.

Why did the value go up so much? As he put it, all you had to do was "add roads."

To build in Florida today you need roads and a lot more. To be polite, while some states have winter and summer, Florida has a growing "iffy" season, a time to watch the weather reports with caution, keep the pantry well-stocked and know your evacuation routes.

Despite debates regarding why such things happen, there has been a plain and obvious change in weather patterns. For Florida and much of the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, warmer water has meant more and stronger hurricanes. But while the storms are short term, their impact can last far longer.

In the news recently has been the decision by home insurers to cover as few homes as possible in Florida and other areas along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. This is a problem because homeowners need coverage, in part because mortgage lenders require it -- no insurance, no loan. When private coverage is unavailable, then state insurance pools come into the picture -- but they're expensive because they represent policyholders with the highest level of risk.

But suppose homes were built with an eye toward new climate realities? You could then get the benefit of Florida living plus more safety and fewer insurance claims in the face of future storms.

You can see that this is already beginning to happen. The Tampa-based Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS), a group started by insurers and reinsurers, works "to ensure that model building codes and industry standards incorporate the latest disaster-resistant features."

Cynics will note that such standards also mean fewer potential insurance claims, but so what? Homeowners are surely ahead with houses that are better armored against storms.

Notice also that the goal here is "disaster-resistant" housing, not absolute protection. That's a reasonable benchmark and far better than the traditional standard of build and pray.

So, will a home constructed to new standards look like a fortress from the Dark Ages? Not at all.

As an example, the first central-Florida homes with the fortified ... for safer living disaster-resistant designation from IBHS are going up in Eustis, a community located between Ocala and Orlando. The 59 "storm safe" homes being built by Charlie Johnson Builder, Inc., under the direction of Kristin Beall, are designed to withstand wind speeds of up to 130 miles per hour.

The homes will range in size from 1,500 to 1,900 square feet and will be priced from roughly $210,000 to $260,000. As to homeowners insurance, these new homes are likely to qualify for discounted insurance rates because they're inherently disaster resistant.

How do you make hurricane-resistant homes? Some of the features in the new Johnson homes include:

  • A reinforced, poured-concrete safe room engineered to withstand category 5 hurricane winds will be built into a closet or laundry room. The solid core door of the safe room will open in, to prevent its occupants from being trapped inside. The house, says the builder, "can literally crumble around this room while occupants remain safe inside this reinforced concrete cocoon."
  • Because broken and flying glass are significant problems during hurricanes, the homes will feature a combination of impact resistant glass and storm shutters.
  • Hip roofs, which are sloped on all sides, are used because they reduce the amount of surface area for the wind to "grab" and "lift" roofs off the house.
  • Exterior doors that swing out are used because such design provides greater resistance to wind and rain.
  • Hurricane straps are used. All new homes in Florida are now required to have hurricane straps to securely hold the roof and the walls together.
  • The homes are built with concrete block construction reinforced with #5 rebar. All decorative gables are made from reinforced concrete block.
  • A one-year subscription to the Weather Channel's notify service is provided to owners. This service provides severe weather warnings by calling an owner's cell phone or home phone as soon as tornado or storm alerts are issued.

President John F. Kennedy said that "the time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining." Builders in Florida are getting the right idea, and no doubt buyers will flock to homes that represent more safety and security in the face of newly-emerging storm patterns.

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