Andrew unearths construction flaws


MIAMI -- As it blew out roofs, toppled walls and upended lives throughout South Dade County's communities last week, Hurricane Andrew laid bare years of sloppy construction practices largely unchecked during the booming '80s, according to engineers who have inspected the damage.

There is no guarantee that stronger houses would have stood up to Andrew's punishing 164-mph gusts, the engineers say. Sheer luck, not sturdiness, determined the fate of many houses as the gusts pounded some harder than others -- and from different directions.

But the massive wreckage tells a more complicated story, one about construction flaws and shortcuts that, while not necessarily illegal, left many homes more vulnerable than they needed to be: Particle board roofs held together by staples. Straps too weak to keep trusses in place. Nails that missed their targets entirely.

As they pick through the rubble, many horrified homeowners are finding evidence that their piece of the American Dream was a nightmare waiting to happen.

"I knew the roof would have damage in a hurricane. I didn't know I wouldn't have a house left," said Chris Mullen, a dialysis technician.

"They told me it was hurricane-proof, up to code, which was all I knew. I really couldn't come in and see the construction in the models. I couldn't look inside the walls. I mean, what are you going to do?"

Two engineers who visited Mr. Mullen's house last week -- Zvonimir Belfranin and Gustavo Solano -- pointed out some of the trouble spots that allowed Andrew to tear off the roof and plunge every room into swirling chaos.

Along the outer walls, roof trusses had ripped free from their hurricane straps. The straps may not have had enough nails, the engineers said.

Atop the trusses, the roof was made not of plywood but of particle board, sometimes referred to as "wafer board." Long staples, not nails, had held the particle board to the trusses.

After the hurricane, only shreds of the particle board remained attached to Mr. Mullen's trusses.

A stronger house might not have survived Andrew's vicious gusts anyway. But the construction techniques found at Mr. Mullen's house might have made it vulnerable even to the lighter, 120-mph winds envisioned by the South Florida Building Code, Mr. Belfranin said.

In the words of another engineer, Eugenio Santiago, "If things had been built the way they should have been built, there would have been a lot less damage."

Andrew's toll raised the specter of a generation gap in the quality of Dade County's homes, with a disproportionate share of newer houses apparently succumbing to the hurricane's wrath.

"I don't know what's happening with construction -- either people don't know as much as they did before or they're cutting corners," Mr. Santiago said.

At the invitation of the Miami Herald, Mr. Belfranin, Mr. Solano and Mr. Santiago toured South Dade's decimated homes.

Builders responded to the criticism by defending the South Florida Building Code as one of the country's strongest -- and Hurricane Andrew as too devastating for even many well-built homes to withstand.

"We just didn't build houses that would withstand 150-mph winds. It's just a whole 'nother world," said Anthony Trella, president of Markborough Communities.

County Manager Joaquin Avino on Friday defended the code as "one of the most stringent codes in the nation." Still, Andrew's utter devastation led him to create a task force to study "the code's requirements relating to structural building components, particularly the design and installation of roofing systems."

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