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Real Estate - Residential

As Hurricane Season Heats Up, How Do Builders, Laws Prep Homes For Storms?

By Emma Dill, posted May 17, 2024
A worker with Flores & Foley Roofing installs a special hurricane-resistant roof on a house in Wilmington in May. (Photo by Madeline Gray)
The forecast for this year’s hurricane season is looking a little ominous.  

Initial predictions from Colorado State University researchers estimate an “extremely active” Atlantic hurricane season with 23 named storms, 11 hurricanes and five major hurricanes rated Category 3 or above.  

Hurricanes have largely spared the Cape Fear region in recent years. Impacts from recent storms have paled in comparison to the devastation brought in 2018 by Hurricane Florence, which dropped more than 25 inches of rain on Wilmington and caused an estimated $17 billion in damage statewide. 

That damage put a bigger spotlight on the need for the construction industry to factor in hurricane-force winds and floodwaters. Statewide building codes and localized wind- and flood-zones outline the standards builders must follow, and in recent years, new materials and building methods have also improved resiliency.

Nearly six years after Hurricane Florence, some homeowners are still rebuilding and repairing damage. 

Hurricanes Florence and Matthew, in 2016, caused significant flooding. According to Cameron Moore, executive officer of the Wilmington-Cape Fear Home Builders Association, much of the structural damage stemmed from floodwaters, not wind from the storms. 

As of press time, 37 damaged homes were being restored through the state’s Rebuild NC program in Pender County, 27 in Brunswick County and seven in New Hanover County.  

Many homes repaired by Rebuild NC are over 30 years old and were constructed using outdated building materials and codes, according to a spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety Disaster Recovery Office.  

State recovery programs use the rebuilding process to put in place more resilient building materials to reduce the effects of future storms. Rebuilding crews also review updated flood maps and elevate homes located in floodplains. 

Numerous codes aim to guide storm-resilient construction across Southeastern North Carolina. Each newly constructed home must meet the requirements outlined in the North Carolina Building Code and corresponding wind zone, Moore wrote in an email to the Business Journal. All of New Hanover County is in a high-wind zone.  

As a rule of thumb, construction east of U.S. 17 must withstand wind speeds of up to 150 miles per hour, while structures west of U.S. 17 must hold up under wind speeds of 140 miles per hour, said Tyler Gemmell, director of Cape Fear Community College’s construction management program. Gemmell has also worked as a building inspector for the town of Leland. 

North Carolina’s Residential Building Code dedicates two chapters to the technical standards and design requirements for construction in high wind zones.   

Structures located in floodplains are subject to additional standards, which encompasses areas along the oceanfront, the Intracoastal Waterway and the Cape Fear River, said Ken Vafier, New Hanover County’s floodplain administrator. Vafier evaluates whether building permits submitted to the county are in a floodplain and helps determine the applicable standards. Every municipality participating in the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) has a designated floodplain administrator who helps enact NFIP standards. 

“The NFIP is kind of an agreement between the county and the federal government that we will adopt flood insurance rate maps and enforce floodplain management standards, and in exchange, we get federal assistance when needed and flood insurance,” Vafier explained. 

Following the federal standards also ensures participation in the Community Rating System, which offers residents an insurance discount based on their municipality’s ranking.  

The primary focus of compliance for residential construction is elevation, according to Vafier. 

“Each structure has to be elevated to a certain point; it’s called the reference level,” he said. 

The reference level refers to base flood elevation – the elevation that floodwaters are expected to rise to during a 1% annual chance flood – plus two additional feet of elevation or freeboard, said Kathryn Thurston, the floodplain administrator for the city of Wilmington.  

In coastal high-hazard areas, floodplain regulations limit uses allowed below the reference level and require walls that will break away during a storm surge to limit broader-scale damage to the home.  

Homes farther inland but still in the floodplain must have elevated vent areas that allow water to flow underneath the home. 

A state’s building codes are put to the test every three years when the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS), a South Carolina-based nonprofit research firm, issues a report it calls Rating the States. 

The report evaluates 18 states along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts based on three criteria: residential building code adoption, education and training of building code officials and contractor training and licensing.  

In its recently released 2024 report, North Carolina ranked No. 8. Although still a state with a “good” score, two key factors contributed to North Carolina’s score declining from 88 to 85 between 2021 and 2024, said Ian Giammanco, the managing director of standards and data analytics and the lead meteorologist with IBHS. 

The biggest contributing factor, Giammanco said, was the state legislature’s adoption of a building code moratorium that runs through 2031. State legislators overrode a veto from Gov. Roy Cooper last year to push through the legislation.  

“This would put (North Carolina) several cycles behind, which is of great concern to us,” Giammanco said.  

New codes are typically updated and adopted every three years to ensure the latest research and standards are applied to new construction. “It is just a way to maintain our building safety standards, which are our codes, to make sure new engineering is always getting put into them,” Giammanco said. 

North Carolina also decreased the area covered by a “wind-borne debris” zone along the coast, which means certain areas no longer need to comply with stringent resilience requirements – another move that impacted North Carolina’s overall score. 

In addition to building code standards, states and groups like IBHS have created programs to subsidize and incentivize improvements that can make homes more resilient.

IBHS helps subsidize the installation of fortified roofs for homes on the coast. Azalea Roofing participates in the program and has installed hundreds of fortified roofs in the Cape Fear region in recent years, said owner Jeff Finch. 

The design of a fortified roof considers how more traditional roofs fail, Finch said. For example, hurricane-force winds will usually damage the corners of a standard roof first, so fortified roofs add a drip edge that seals the shingles around their perimeter. Fortified roofs also use a sealed roof deck to prevent water from seeping through the roof and into the house. 

Finch said fortified roofs are becoming more common as incentives and grants become available, but they’re often still more expensive than traditional roofs. 

“Sometimes the dollars can get in the way of practicality,” Finch said. “You’re putting it in just in case. It’s not a matter of ‘if’ in this area; it’s more of a matter of ‘when.’ When do we get the next storm?”
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