Hurricane Michael leveled the beachfront community of Mexico Beach, leaving it just about unrecognizable from devastating wind and storm surge.
The tiny city still is struggling to recover.
It goes to show the power of even the most intense hurricanes, especially considering Florida is known for having the most stringent building codes in the country.
Since Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the last Category 5 storm to slam the state, Florida has been divided into several wind zones designated in the Florida Building Code. Based on what region you’re in, your home has to be built to withstand winds in that area’s wind zone.
The strictest wind zones are down in South Florida. New construction in the Florida Keys needs to be built to withstand up to 180 mph, for example. Up in the Panhandle, like Bay County where Michael hit last year, wind speeds are significantly lower to 130-140 mph.
Now, people are asking if a change is needed.
Marvin Dryden, Tampa's construction services center manager, thinks codes are where they need to be currently.
"Yeah, I think they are, if they’re properly applied to construction today," Dryden said.
He does acknowledge, however, there are thousands of homes in the Tampa Bay area that were built before Hurricane Andrew and are likely not up to code.
The counties surrounding Tampa Bay all fall in the middle range of Florida’s wind codes – from 160 mph in parts of Sarasota County – to 140 mph in parts of Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties. Dryden estimates that only about a quarter of homes in the city of Tampa are up to the current code because many are older structures.
It could be even fewer homes in some of the surrounding areas.
What if a storm like Michael were to hit here?
"We’re looking at a small area when we look at the devastation they had in [Mexico Beach]," Dryden said. "Because we have so many more homes and it’s such a wide area, we wouldn’t see that area of widespread devastation.
"It would be a focused area of devastation."
Dryden believes some parts of the Bay area with older homes could have a lot of structural damage if a storm like Michael hit here, but he doesn’t think the Bay area would see whole communities wiped out as we saw in Mexico Beach.
"We look at Mexico Beach and the devastation there," Dryden said. "What we see there is a small area. This is a much larger area, with a bunch of different types of construction, different ages of homes."
Other experts, like former Federal Emergency Management Agency director Craig Fugate, disagree with the local assessment.
"It would be worse in Tampa Bay," he said.
Fugate served as head of the FEMA under the Barack Obama Administration. Now in the private sector, he’s still an expert when it comes to hurricane damage.
"I’m not sure our building codes are as good as they need to be," Fugate said. "What happened in the Panhandle could happen anywhere along Florida’s coast."
According to hurricane tracks collected by NOAA through the years, it’s clear the entire state of Florida is a potential target – and there might be a problem with setting standards solely based on what’s happened in the past.
"Looking at past data to determine our vulnerabilities and risk isn’t working, particularly for hurricanes. How many times in the last 10 years have we had record-setting weather events?" Fugate said. "You cannot just go by the history of the hurricanes, you have to ask the question: Is there any reason why it can’t happen?
"Just because it hasn’t, or hasn’t happened in our recorded history, doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened or cannot happen."
So what is stopping state leaders from bolstering the state’s wind codes? Experts say it all comes down to politics.
"Politics are absolutely the factor we have to address," Fugate said. "Building codes are formed by commissions of various vested interests. It is, at the point a code is issued, already a compromised document.
"It is not always what the best science is, it is what everybody could agree to."
Fugate says, traditionally, it has been those special interests who have lobbied to weaken the state’s building code arguing that strengthening the code would only amount to more red tape.
"Red tape is what, in many cases, provides for the basic safety of our homes," Fugate said. "This is something that the Florida legislature has to address.
"It’s something that the cabinet has to address and it’s something that Governor DeSantis at least is recognizing that the long-term trends are not in Florida’s favor."