Insurance, Other Goups Call For Elimination of Panhandle Carve-Out

June 19, 2006

Insurance and building safety groups are calling for Florida to end the exemption granted communities in the Panhandle Gulf Coast area from stricter building codes that are being enforced elsewhere in the state.

The Tallahassee, Fla.-based Florida Insurance Council has joined with national insurance trade associations as well as home and business safety organizations in urging the Florida Building Commission to remove the so-called Panhandle carve-out which exempts communities from Franklin County to Escambia County from some of the tougher building requirements established in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Joining FIC are the American Insurance Association, the Property Casualty Insurers of American, the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes and the Institute for Business and Home Safety.

The Florida Building Code establishes “windborne debris regions” throughout the state. These regions define coastal areas subject to winds of 120 miles an hour or greater and susceptible to windborne damage during storms.

New residential construction in these regions must include shutters or impact-resistance glass to protect windows and door openings. The windborne debris regions and shutter/impact-resistant glass standards have been calculated by the American Society of Civil Engineer and accepted by the Florida Building Commission, except in the Panhandle.

In 2000, under pressure from north Florida homebuilders, the Florida Legislature elected to limit wind-borne debris regions and the shutter and impact-resistant glass requirements to one mile from the coastline in Franklin through Escambia, creating what is now commonly referred to as the Panhandle carve-out. If ASCE 7-98, the wind-borne debris map for Florida, had been implemented completely, the regions would extend much farther inland, five miles on average and close to the Alabama line in some isolated instances.

“We strongly recommend that the Florida Building Commission remove the Panhandle exemption and adopt the current ASCE 7/IBC/IRC definitions and requirements for opening protection,” the insurance trades coalition states in a letter to Raul L. Rodriguez, Florida Building Commission chairman.

The coalition will make its argument orally June 19, when the building commission meets on the issue in Destin.

“Given the recent experience of multiple storms impacting Florida and the indications that we are early in a cycle of greater hurricane activity, we believe that it is prudent to err on the side of conservatism and greater protection, if there is in fact an error,” the insurance groups continue.

“The Panhandle has, to some extent, been fortunate that the recent storms have dropped in wind intensity as they neared landfall. When the Panhandle is hit by a storm where the eye-wall stays together, such as a Camille (1969), we expect that the amount of windborne debris will be significantly greater and the need for window protection much greater than we have seen in the recent storms. When that happens, all Floridians will bear the costs of the increased damage that could have been prevented by having a broader use of opening protection.”

The “error” comment refers to a final report for the building commission from Applied Research Associates, a North Carolina consulting engineering firm, which suggests that total implementation of the ASCE 7-98 wind map might not be necessary in regions of the Panhandle with heavy tree concentration.

“The 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons provided convincing evidence that areas well beyond the one-mile coastline could be just as vulnerable to fierce hurricane winds as those within the one-mile designation,” Sam Miller, Florida Insurance Council executive vice president said.

“Legislators acknowledged that fact in the recent 2006 Florida legislative session when they authorized the Florida Building Commission to decide whether to remove the carve-out or not and to establish building standards it deems necessary to help Florida’s buildings stand up to the destructive winds associated with hurricanes and even tropical storms,” Miller added.

“A survey by the Institute for Business and Home Safety in 2005 found that 74 percent of residents thought the Panhandle region should have the same code as other Florida regions with the same requirements for hurricane shutters or impact-resistant windows and other protections,” said Tim Reinhold, IBHS’s vice president for Engineering.

“Many were surprised that standard ‘wind-borne debris region’ definitions and protections did not apply in the Panhandle,” he said.

In the 2005 legislative session, lawmakers established the Task Force on Long-Term Solutions for Florida’s Hurricane Market to study Florida’s hurricane insurance market and come up with recommendations it feels addresses the long and short-term insurance availability issues. One of its recommendations in the report released in March of this year is the elimination of the Panhandle carve-out.

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