Florida coastal living reshaped by hurricane housing codes

Many homeowners in southwest Florida towns find it challenging to rebuild. ‘People leave and don’t come back.’

Trixie Parkes’s 1976 wood-framed cottage long served as her home and main source of income, because she rented two units on the top floor to tourists. But when Hurricane Ian tore through in late September, it destroyed most of the first floor and gouged a gaping hole in the second-floor walls. She didn’t have flood insurance, which she said became too expensive after Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Ms. Parkes, 59, plans to sell her property. "I have a great location," she said. "Maybe somebody will come and offer me a lot of money and I can walk away."

Five blocks away stands a roughly $2 million house that weathered the storm with negligible damage. Fernando Gonzalez built the two-story, concrete-block home six years ago to exceed the requirements of the building code at the time.


A destroyed house following Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers Beach, Florida, US, on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022. Florida cities looking to rebuild from the devastation of Hurricane Ian will be financing their efforts during the worst environment for municipal b (Photographer: Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images / Getty Images)


Instead of raising the house 12 feet as required, he said he lifted it 4 feet more. He said he also built the foundation stronger than mandated, going 6 feet below the ground and installing thick concrete walls instead of columns, with vents to allow water to flow through in case of storm surge. He estimated such upgrades added about $15,000 to the construction costs.

"If you want the luxury of living near the ocean, you have to pay," said Mr. Gonzalez, 57.

Strong hurricanes and stricter building codes, arriving in succession, are changing the economic and demographic makeup of Florida’s coastal communities. Inexpensive cottages vulnerable to harsh weather are giving way to pricier homes that are more resilient—a transition that is fortifying the housing stock, but limiting who can afford to live on the coast.

Aerial shot of debris from Hurricane Ian

This aerial photo shows damaged homes and debris in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Fort Myers, Fla. ((AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) / AP Newsroom)

Adding to the costs are escalating premiums for homeowners and flood insurance.

Florida’s building code has long been one of the strictest in the U.S. After Hurricane Andrew destroyed tens of thousands of homes in the Miami area in 1992, lawmakers adopted a uniform statewide building code with more-stringent construction requirements. The code, which took effect in 2002 and is updated every three years, establishes a minimum standard local governments must adhere to.

The latest version, adopted in 2020, includes provisions to seal roof decks to keep water out, as well as longer-standing requirements to install impact-resistant windows or shutters and ensure strong connections among the roof, walls and foundation, said Anne Cope, chief engineer at the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, an industry-backed research group. It also contains provisions to guard against flood hazards by, for instance, elevating structures above a certain level.

Florida business

Owner Robert Leisure walks into what used to be the gift shop of the Getaway Marina in Fort Myers Beach, Fla., Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022. Hurricane Ian made landfall Wednesday, Sept. 28, as a Category 4 hurricane on the southwest coast of Florida.  ((Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP) / AP Newsroom)

In the areas of southwest and central Florida that fell within the hurricane-force wind swath of Ian, an estimated 69% of housing units were built before 2000, two years before the statewide building code took effect, according to Census Bureau and National Hurricane Center data.

U.S. coastal areas prone to storms and sea-level rise have developed faster and become denser than non-coastal areas, according to a study by University of Florida and other researchers published in August. As a result, the exposure of building structures to natural hazards is increasing.

Nearly 33 million homes with close to $10.5 trillion in reconstruction cost value are at risk of hurricane-force wind damages along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, according to a June report by CoreLogic, a real-estate data company. Nearly 7.8 million homes with more than $2.3 trillion in reconstruction cost value are at risk of storm-surge damage, the report said.


A CoreLogic analysis earlier this month estimated that flood and wind losses from Ian will range between $41 billion and $70 billion, including between $10 billion and $17 billion of uninsured flood losses, since many homeowners don’t carry flood insurance.

"As these numbers get bigger and bigger, there’s going to be a point where the community cannot recover," said Tom Larsen, senior director for hazard and risk management at CoreLogic. "People leave and don’t come back."

In the Florida panhandle, Mexico Beach, which was ravaged by Hurricane Michael in 2018, imposed code changes in the aftermath. The city now requires new homes in many areas be built 1.5 feet above the highest point in the adjacent roadway, and those in certain low-lying areas be elevated significantly higher. It also increased the wind speed new homes must withstand to 140 miles an hour from 130.

Locals sought to preserve the character of Mexico Beach, with its cottages, seafood spots and population of retired teachers, military personnel and others drawn to an affordable beachfront lifestyle. Officials continued to bar high-rise developments.

But they couldn’t stave off changes. Some homeowners who lacked insurance sold and moved. Investors bought land and built fancier homes to rent. New gated communities are sprouting up.


The average sales price of homes in a stretch of coast that includes Mexico Beach increased to $453,000 in 2021 from $271,000 in 2019, according to data compiled by 98 Real Estate Group, a local firm. There were 10 home sales in the area of $1 million or more in 2021, and two sales of $2 million or more this year.

"The building has just been unbelievable," said Bobby Pollock, a member of the Mexico Beach city council.

A similar trend could unfold in the Fort Myers area, said Mark Wilson, president of London Bay Development Group, a real-estate developer based in Naples, Fla. The firm is developing a 10-story condo building in Fort Myers Beach with 58 units starting at $1.3 million each. The nearly-completed building endured Ian well, with breakaway walls, designed to collapse in the event of heavy storm surge, performing as expected, he said.

Next year, the company plans to break ground on the Ritz-Carlton Residences, Estero Bay, to the south, with units starting at $2.8 million.

As older homes in the Fort Myers area are taken down, those that replace them will cost significantly more, Mr. Wilson said.

James and Becky Reed bought a wood-framed bungalow a few blocks from the ocean in Fort Myers Beach for $150,000 in 2000 and relocated from Tennessee to retire. The beach community was an affordable slice of Florida, with palm-tree-lined streets and candy-colored cottages.

Hurricane Ian blew out the Reeds’ first-floor walls and windows and ripped away siding on the second floor, saturating interior drywall. Though the couple have homeowners and flood insurance—with premiums totaling about $8,200 a year—the likely payouts won’t come close to covering rebuilding costs given current building codes, they said.

The storm surge swept a nearby wooden cottage off its foundation, flinging its two elderly residents through a window, said neighbor Romaine Turner, 84. She said she managed to pull them in through her window and save them. Neither she nor the couple are planning to come back, she said.

The island community of Matlacha, north of Fort Myers Beach, has clung to its identity as a mixture of fishing village and artsy outpost. Brightly colored buildings house restaurants, bars, boutiques and galleries. Residents relish a laid-back lifestyle, kayaking along mangroves or lounging on waterfront decks at sunset.

The hurricane upended it, wrecking residences and businesses. Richard and Sonya Giannone bought a home there last year that they renovated and were planning to make their primary residence. In May, they bought a gallery down the street and featured stained glass, jewelry and pottery.

The storm caused the ground beneath the home to collapse, prompting part of it to fall into the water. Whether it is salvageable remains to be seen. The gallery flooded, but the building’s structure remained intact. The Giannones have focused on trying to preserve it, bringing in crews to pull up flooring and cut away wall panels, and running dehumidifiers to keep mold from spreading.

They are bracing for a financial hit since neither property had coverage for flood or wind damage. "Right now, there’s not much of anything we can do," said Mr. Giannone, 76. "We’re trying to take it a step at a time."

Several blocks away, Christina Lyle’s home took on about a foot-and-a-half of water that coated her floors and furniture with sludge. A sixth-generation Floridian who bought the place four years ago, she said she was drawn to Matlacha because it represented old Florida to her.

"It’s home, it’s cozy, everybody looks out for one another," said Ms. Lyle, 50. She often fishes during the day, hangs out at a coffee shop or stops by local shops. She recently joined a women’s civic group called the Matlacha Hookers—named for fish hooks—that raises money for local causes.


Ms. Lyle said her home is covered by homeowners and flood insurance and that she plans to rebuild, though isn’t sure how long she will stay. She worries that, like so much of the Florida coast, Matlacha will change in the wake of the hurricane.

"I’m just hoping and praying that when the rebuilding starts, it doesn’t turn into high-rises," she said.