Fla. community is built to take hurricanes

Deep pilings anchor homes built of concrete and linked by steel cables

July 17, 2005|By Mark Hollis | Mark Hollis,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

SEASIDE, Fla. - Baking under Monday afternoon's sun at their three-story, Victorian-style home near the beach, Michael and Laura Granberry scooped up a few scattered leaves and hosed down their new Volkswagen.

Unlike thousands of residents along the western Florida Panhandle, there wasn't much cleanup work for the Granberrys and their neighbors after Hurricane Dennis made landfall.

What began in the 1980s as a South Florida urban planner's famous architectural experiment in the so-called "new urbanism" proved again last weekend that it's also a model for how to build a hurricane-ready town near the beach.

While most residents heeded evacuation orders, the Granberrys and two dozen other residents of this 470-home community in rural Walton County stuck out the storm despite warnings that wind speeds would exceed 100 mph.

They had a hurricane party Saturday night, and on Sunday morning, most went to a nearby chapel for a prayer service. When the winds began whipping by that afternoon, they braced themselves indoors, but the community was again spared damage.

"These are concrete walls," Michael Granberry said. "It rattled and we heard a few bangs. ... It was a little unnerving. But this is built on a bluff, and it's tough as nails."

Officials here say the layout of the community and the hardy manner in which the homes are built make it one of the safest places along the Gulf of Mexico.

Seaside is where Jim Carrey's The Truman Show was filmed. It's considered an expensive place to visit, with overnight stays in small cottages costing hundreds of dollars. It's an even more expensive place to own a house, with most homes of about 1,100 square feet now exceeding $1.5 million.

The brainchild of developer Robert Davis and Miami architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Seaside's houses are built to standards that have become the model for construction after Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida in 1992.

The windows, doors and concrete walls were designed to withstand storms. Many houses are tethered together by steel cables. And instead of resting on traditional concrete slabs, the homes are on wooden pilings that are drilled 40 feet deep.

Power and phone lines also are buried. The roofs of the homes are polished corrugated metal rather than the tiles that adorn most North Florida homes.

About 50 houses and more than a dozen small retail shops line the beach. But most of the community sits to the north of a busy beachside roadway. With most residents living a bit back from the water, authorities here say the community avoided the winds and waves that demolished dozens of homes, hotels and other businesses only a few miles away.

What wasn't saved was the powdery white sand and sea oats that adorned nearly a mile-wide stretch of beach here.

"After Hurricane Ivan, we chose to do a private beach re-nourishment that totaled $1.5 million, and now, that investment is gone," said Rick Severance, the chief executive officer of the Seaside Community Development Corp. "What's important is that the integrity of the real estate is intact. We don't have any structural issues with any of our homes."

Small businesses and eateries in the community - built to the same high standards as the houses - weathered Hurricane Dennis without any worries.

"Not even a screen door ripped," said Charles Modica, who runs a gourmet food market "Been here for two decades, and we've never had anything fall off [the shelves], even during a hurricane."

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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