The view from Brickell City Centre facing south toward Brickell Avenue on November 1, 2016. C.M. GUERRERO cmguerrero@elnuevoherald.com
The view from Brickell City Centre facing south toward Brickell Avenue on November 1, 2016. C.M. GUERRERO cmguerrero@elnuevoherald.com

Real Estate

Should you ride out a hurricane in a high-rise?

By Rene Rodriguez

rrodriguez@miamiherald.com

August 23, 2017 02:56 PM

UPDATED September 05, 2017 06:41 AM

“Should I stay or should I go?” sang The Clash in 1981.

That’s the same question Miami high-rise dwellers could be asking themselves as hurricane season enters its busiest stretch.

Thousands of people who weren’t around for Hurricane Andrew — or didn’t live in a high-rise — now reside inside modern condo and apartment towers that meet some of the strictest building codes in the U.S., capable of withstanding winds up to 175 mph.

But most of those new towers are located in coastal areas — Miami Beach, Coconut Grove, Brickell, Sunny Isles — and could be under evacuation order depending on hurricane-track and storm-surge forecasts. So even though you’d probably be safe inside your 35th-floor condo, you could be cut off from police and emergency services in case of flooding.

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Most high-rise condos were built after Hurricane Andrew. The high-rise building boom didn’t begin until after 2000, and from 2002 to the present day, 42,890 condos have been built in Miami-Dade east of Interstate 95, according to Peter Zalewski, a principal with the real estate consultancy Cranespotters.com. Another 9,098 units are currently under construction.

Out of those post-2000 units, 64 percent (27,589 ) are in the downtown Miami/Brickell area.

According to a study conducted by the risk assessment group Karen Clark & Company for the Stronger Safer Florida coalition, an Andrew-sized hurricane hitting South Florida today would result in insured losses of nearly $50 billion. (The cost of insured losses after Andrew in 1992 was $15.1 billion — or $26 billion in today’s dollars.)

If the storm veered north toward downtown, away from the southwestern track Andrew took, the insured losses could reach $200 billion.

“Comparing Miami today to 1992 is like comparing apples and oranges,” KCC co-founder Karen Clark said. “The biggest drivers are increasing construction and the increasing cost of that construction. It costs more than twice as much today to repair the same damage. There are also a lot more people living in West Kendall and Homestead today, so there are more and bigger houses. That drives up the amount of damage and insured losses.”

Hurricane Andrew blew out most of the windows at the Brickell Townhouse condo tower in 1992.
Mac Seligman Special to the Herald

Some buildings have been upgraded in keeping with tougher construction standards. After Hurricane Wilma blew out windows from the Four Seasons and Conrad Hotels in 2005, leaving giant shards of glass strewn along Brickell Avenue, they were replaced with tempered glass that shatters into tiny cubes.

But older buildings that have not been reworked remain vulnerable.

“When something is removed or replaced, the new addition has to comply with the current building codes,” said Michael L. Goolsby, Board and Code Administration Division Director for Miami-Dade County. “But there’s no trigger that would require an existing building to be renovated. There are still a lot of buildings that wouldn’t pass the requirements for new construction.”

Fortunately, most of Miami’s residential high-rises meet the stricter codes that would protect their inhabitants during a storm. But Alex Lastra, president of the Latin Builders Association, says that doesn’t mean people should think of them as fortresses.

“I don’t think there will be a lot of people riding out one of these storms inside a high-rise,” Lastra said. “All of these densely populated areas are near the water, so they’re in an evacuation area anyway. I can’t imagine someone spending a week after a storm with no power hiking up and down 35 flights of stairs. If a forced evacuation order is put in place, I recommend everyone abide by the decision.”

If you live in a high-rise and a hurricane approaches, here are some things to keep in mind (in addition to the usual staples of stocking up on water, food, batteries and flashlights):

Miami-Dade building code requires the first 30 feet of any high rise to be equipped with high-impact windows, which can withstand being hit by a nine-pound 2X4 traveling at 50 feet per second.

Why only 30 feet? Alan Ojeda, CEO of the real estate developer Rilea Group, says the reasoning is that debris doesn’t fly above three stories. Some projects, such as Ojeda’s 35-story luxury office tower at 1450 Brickell Ave., use impact glass from top to bottom, so the building could reopen as soon as possible after a storm.

Above 30 feet, windows are required to use “small missile impact” glass, which can withstand being struck by a small steel ball bearing traveling at 130 feet per second.

The most important thing to keep in mind about your windows: Keep them all completely closed during the storm, no matter how hot it gets without that glorious air-conditioning. Wind currents will run down the face of a tall building, creating suction and vacuums along the way.

“The very first rule is to close every single opening and make sure the wind cannot get in, because the amount of air that comes in is so great, and the pressure is so high, it would start demolishing the walls,” Ojeda says.

Wind speeds are also stronger the higher up you go, so if you live above the 40th floor, expect to feel the building sway and fro.

“You would be amazed how much the building will shake,” Ojeda says. “If you have a lamp on the ceiling you will see it move.”

If the weather gets so ferocious you no longer feel safe inside your condo, head for the stairwell — the safest, strongest section of any high-rise.

“Staircase and elevator vertical shafts are poured-in, reinforced shear concrete walls, which is like the spine of your body,” says architect Kobi Karp, founding principal of Kobi Karp Architecture and Interior Design. “If you sit inside a stairwell during a hurricane, you will be very safe. The problem is the aftermath. No one will be able to get to you in case of an emergency. This is why wise people wouldn't stick around for a hurricane.”

This one is plain common sense, but just in case: Don’t leave anything on your balcony during a hurricane. No furniture, no plants, not even wind chimes.

The cooling tower atop high-rises is the thing that keeps the AC running throughout the building. In the case of a hurricane, the unit’s breakers will be shut off for safety, so get ready to sweat.

At least you don’t have to worry about the tower getting blown off the roof. According to Jose Carmero, building director for the City of Miami, cooling towers are built to sustain winds of 175 mph, just like the rest of the building.

“They are secure,” Carmero says. “I’d only worry about them if we had a storm that had 200 mph winds. In that case, I’m not so sure.”

If you choose to ride out a storm in your high-rise and you live on a high floor, prepare to stay there until power is restored — unless you’re big into cardio. Chances are good that elevators will not be operational after the power goes out. (Check with your building’s management company to find out for sure.) Most emergency generators are used to fuel critical services such as emergency lights and fire pumps.

“Wilma and Katrina taught us that hurricanes are the great equalizer when you live vertically,” says Peter Zalewski of Cranespotters.com. “The higher the floor, the higher the price. But after a storm, the lower your floor, the more convenient it will be for you. You’re not going to be walking up and down 40 flights just to get food, and you won’t be able to call Uber Eats, either.”

After Hurricane Wilma tore through South Florida in 2005, the state legislature amended Chapter 718 of the Florida Statutes to include what is known as the “condominium act,” granting extra powers to condo boards and associations if the governor declares a state of emergency.

Among those powers: The ability to order a mandatory evacuation of the building — and protection from any legal liability for any accident or injury that occurs to tenants who refuse to leave.

But Donna DiMaggio Berger, a shareholder with Becker & Poliakoff Community Association Practice Group, says the condo act has not yet been needed since it was put into the lawbooks, and she fears complacency has set in.

“It's been so many years since we've had a serious wind event in South Florida, and so many condo boards have changed hands and members, people are not prepared,” she says. “In many buildings, there are no emergency plans in place, no evacuation procedures, no review of the emergency statutory powers.”

Berger says condo associations “have a fiduciary duty to the members they serve” and should plan ahead for worst-case scenarios.

“You have to think about the most vulnerable people in your building,” she says. “You have people who may depend on electricity to operate an oxygen machine, or shut-ins who are frail or elderly and can’t get to a shelter on their own. You have to think of the building’s employees — the front-desk staff, janitors, valets, security guards.”

Tropical Storm Emily managed to flood Miami Beach and Brickell earlier this summer, and that storm barely grazed us. Flooding is a certainty in the event of a hurricane, so underground parking garages are not a good idea.

Depending on the level of the tidal surge, emergency services might be unable to reach you and power could be out for weeks.

“If you have a severe inundation, water could get into the elevator shafts,” says Pete Gomez, assistant fire chief and emergency manager for the City of Miami. “Everything east of U.S. 1 and Biscayne Blvd. is prone to flooding. We can’t force you to evacuate, but there’s a good possibility that if you dial 911, no one is going to be able to help you.”

Condo owners pay lower insurance premiums than single-family home owners, because they only have to worry about the interior of their unit. The exterior of the building, as well as all common areas, are insured by your homeowners association.

But Doug Jones, a managing partner at JAG Insurance Group, says a lot of cash buyers skimp on their HO-6 policies — condo insurance that covers everything inside the unit, including personal property, floors and walls — because they’re not legally required to have one.

“Generally speaking, people don't buy insurance on their units unless the bank forces them to,” Jones says. “And even people who are financing their purchase are just buying a nominal amount of insurance — just enough to be able to close on the sale. The more coverage you have, the higher the cost of the purchase, which off-sets your ability to get the loan you desire. So we see people trimming back the insurance coverage to get their monthly expenses down.”

Another element keeping condo owners from properly insuring their units is “recency bias,” says Lonny Greenberg, a certified financial planner for Singer Xenos Wealth Management.

“We haven't had a major storm in 12 years, and it’s been 25 years since Andrew,” Greenberg says. “People have been paying condo insurance for a while and haven’t seen the clear and present benefit of it. They’re starting to think ‘Is this a hoax? Does this place actually get hurricanes?’ I’ve had to talk people into believing it’s a really good idea to buy insurance.”

Let’s say you work at a nice, tall office building with enclosed elevated parking. Why not just ride out the storm inside your office?

That’s not going to work. Amarjit “Marj” Bains, national director and senior vice president for JLL’s property management division, says managers of commercial high rises, such as the 34-story tower at 701 Brickell Ave., have strict guidelines in place to make sure the buildings are evacuated before they’re locked down.

“Upon a hurricane warning, we advise all our tenants that the building is going to be evacuated, regardless of whether it’s a mandatory order,” Bains says. “I don’t want to say we escort people out of the building, because that’s a strong word. But we do floor sweeps to make sure every suite has been prepped and every individual is removed from the building in time.”

The reason why you can’t stay in your office during a hurricane: Liability. There won’t be any security or engineering staff on duty, and flooding could make the building difficult to reach for several days after a storm. In case of an accident or injury, you’d be on your own — literally.

Rene Rodriguez: 305-376-3611, @ReneMiamiHerald