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High Cost Snarls New Building Code for Fla. Schools

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After Hurricane Andrew cut a swath through southeast Florida in 1992, state officials called for stronger construction standards so that all new schools in the state could double as hurricane shelters.

Three years and $50,000 later, a team of experts says it has come up with the optimum plan. But state education officials have yet to adopt the new building standards, largely because of concerns over costs.

Gov. Lawton Chiles established a review commission in 1992 to recommend changes in statewide planning for and response to hurricanes. Among the commission's recommendations were that building codes for school buildings be rewritten to ensure that new schools provide adequate shelter.

During Hurricane Andrew, some school buildings survived unscathed while others were completely or nearly destroyed.

The state education department formed a committee of experts to revise the existing specifications. The panel includes: researchers at the University of Florida college of architecture, professional architects, an expert in wind engineering, other engineers, and Red Cross officials.

"We were told what was needed, and we studied the problem for over a year," said Ed Hubert, a structural engineer for the education department who served on the panel.

A school built to the proposed standards would be able to withstand 150 mph winds, falling trees, loss of power, and other hazards to provide emergency shelter for residents.

Compromise Weighed

But concerns over cost and whether such stringent standards are necessary have delayed adoption of the stiffer code by the education department.

The proposed standards call for:

  • Concrete roofs, at least 4 inches thick, that could handle the weight of 2 inches of rain per hour for at least six hours;
  • Impact-resistant windows and doors that could withstand the force of a 15-pound two-by-four traveling at 50 mph;
  • Careful landscaping to protect buildings from damage by falling trees;
  • Thicker, better-reinforced walls;
  • Emergency exits; and
  • Emergency power and lighting.

Some of the standards, such as landscaping or emergency doors, involve only moderate increases in building costs. Others, such as impact-resistant windows and thicker roofs, would be expensive.

The education department has proposed easing the standards to reduce costs. Officials estimate that building to the proposed code could add as much as $500,000 to the cost of an elementary school and $2 million to the cost of a high school.

"The lower standards are fine," said Ben Starrett, a spokesman for the state department of community affairs who is also the former staff director of the governor's disaster-review commission.

"We realize that some compromises are a financial reality when you're looking at no additional funding sources."

Bind for Districts

The education department has suggested lowering the standards so that schools would be built to withstand a less-severe storm, with winds up to 121 mph.

School district officials have similar concerns, saying they're caught between the need for safer schools and the ever-present lack of money to build them with.

"You have to be careful making recommendations without providing funding," said Henry Fraind, an assistant superintendent with the Miami-area Dade County schools, which were hard hit by Andrew.

"It's a great idea," he added, "but who's going to provide the money when Americans are screaming 'no new taxes'?"

Mr. Fraind said the 300,000-student district is in no position to spend extra money unless the law requires it.

But he agreed that school buildings must be made as safe as possible. "School buildings belong to the public, and we'll do whatever it takes to save a life."

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