State’s new mega-hotel ready to weather storms that may come – AL.comOctober 31, 2018
By John Sharp | email@example.com
A $140 million seaside hotel and conference center at Gulf State Park will open Friday to plenty of pageantry and remarks about how it’s a “crown jewel” that will lure more tourists to the Alabama beaches.
But perhaps overshadowing the celebrations will be the fact that The Lodge at Gulf State Park, which includes a 350-room Hilton Hotel, is the first commercially built structure along the Gulf of Mexico to receive one of the highest designations for fortification against storms.
That fact comes at a coincidental time: The Lodge complex has been under construction for several years, but it’s opening ceremonies take place less than one month after powerful Hurricane Michael left a swath of the Florida Panhandle in ruins.
“The project has been in our queue for the past two years, but I think the storms of 2017 made the case for resilience, and the storms of 2018 was the exclamation point,” said Chuck Miccolis, vice president of commercial lines with the Tampa-based Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS), referring to stricter construction standards for commercial and residential properties.
Those strict standards for The Lodge include: a roof that can handle the strongest of hurricane-force winds, an overall complex built well above flood levels to better protect it from storm surge, and an overall structure capable of withstanding winds of 160 mph.
“These storms, all it takes if is just one to devastate an area,” said Miccolis, whose organization provides a “fortified” designation to commercial structures and whose South Carolina-based laboratory is the only worldwide test location of how a full-scale building can cope with environmental disasters.
“We saw it with Michael most recently, and it exposed some of the older construction and some of the older codes. These storms are just doing devastation to different areas and it’s important we don’t go back to construct it the way it was before,” he said.
The new Lodge complex is expected to be certified as “fortified bronze,” which means that its roof will be attached at a “higher standard than what you would find in a normal building code,” said Matt Leavell, director of design at the University of Alabama Center for Economic Development, which has overseen the project for the last five years.
The complex is already marketed as a “model of resilient, environmentally friendly coastal development,” and designers are confident it’s capable of avoid the fate of the first lodge and hotel.
That original complex, opened in 1974, served as a hub for community activities and offered beachside accommodations long before gleaming high-rise condominiums began to populate Beach Boulevard in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.
Hurricane Ivan, a Category 3 storm with 120 mph winds, destroyed much of it in September 2004. The complex stood in tatters, and the rubble from the old lodge was used as an artificial reef in 2007.
Proposals were floated as replacements, but funding restrictions kept a new complex from realization.
The new Lodge was among the first major construction projects announced in Alabama that would be financed by BP’s compensation for its 2010 Gulf oil spill.
The project’s use of certain BP restoration funds, authorized during Gov. Robert Bentley’s administration, became the subject of scrutiny and litigation. Environmental advocates such as the New Orleans-based Gulf Restoration Network maintained that the dollars ought to be going to revive and enhance natural resources.
Throughout the legal process, resolved only last year, the objective of the new complex’s construction did not waver: Officials deemed it as an “international benchmark” for “economic and environmental sustainability” that would feature construction standards far above the norm.
Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Baykeeper and a critic of how some BP money has been spent on projects like road construction, said she believes that The Lodge’s construction management team “has done everything right, as far as we understand.”
“This is what we want to see in future construction along the coast,” said Callaway. ”It costs more money, but if it can survive Category 4 winds, it will save us a lot of money.”
She also pointed out, however, that the project includes an “expensive hotel that not everyone in Alabama will be able to afford.”
The IBHS standards for fortified commercial structures are in place only in Alabama, and Miccolis said there are other projects that could soon await designations, including small businesses.
Fortified standards have long existed for residential properties, and Alabama leads the way nationally. Of the 10,000 or so fortified structures designated in the U.S., approximately 7,000 are in Alabama.
Much of that program is overseen by Mobile-based Smart Homes America, a non-profit group that promotes stricter construction standards and improved building codes.
Alabama lawmakers, in 2014, approved of new insurance premium discounts of as much as 50 percent to homeowners who build to the fortified standards.
The fortified standards come in three designations: Bronze, which focuses on a reinforced roof that is seen as a first line of defense against storms; silver, which includes roof reinforcements and adds enhanced window and door protections; and gold, which includes full-scale structural protections throughout, from top to bottom and side to side.
John Cleary, associate professor in the Department of Civil, Coastal and Environmental Engineering at the University of South Alabama, said the primary damage that people see from hurricanes involves structures built before 2000, or before modern building codes were first established nationally.
Cleary said that engineers would prefer to see coastal construction advance to what he calls a “Code-Plus requirement,” which includes the elements that earn a fortified designation.
He said the costs can be an initial deterrent for homeowners, though he acknowledged that new homes built in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores must abide by stricter codes already adopted by each city.
Miccolis said the costs to fortify a commercial structure are easily justified.
“There is an old traditional thought that mitigation is expensive and doesn’t make sense when, actually, it’s cost effective and often pays for itself,” he said. “The projects we have worked on, the increased costs have been a small percentage … and is relatively small when compared to the millions of dollars going into it. You’re talking pennies to the dollar in comparison.”
Cleary, meanwhile, was part of a team that did an analysis in the Florida Panhandle following Michael, and has already released a report on some of his team’s findings.
“We did see some failures in modern structures … that was the largest storm to ever hit the Panhandle,” he said. “But, by far, the modern structures performed much better than the older structures.”
Miccolis said that fortified “gold” homes in Mexico Beach and Port St. Joe all survived major damage from Michael. Among them were homes built by Habitat for Humanity.
Images of the so-called “Sand Palace” in Mexico Beach generated national news as a structure that stood strong amid the wreckage of a city that took the brunt of Michael’s punch.
The three-story, four-bedroom, 4-1/2 bath vacation rental home was constructed in 2017, and was built to withstand winds of about 240 to 250 mph, according to media reports.
Florida has a statewide building code, while Alabama does not. In Florida, the state code requires houses to be built so they can withstand 120 mph winds.
At Gulf State Park, where The Lodge is located, the highest and best standards would be to withstand winds of a Category 5 storm, which would register above Michael’s 155 mph winds at Mexico Beach.
“The design wind speed for typical structures at this location is 160 miles per hour, based on the latest version of the building code,” said David Roueche, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at Auburn University. “But as we just saw a few weeks ago, these design wind speeds only reflect a low probability of exceedance, not that they will never be exceeded. There is evidence to suggest that portions of the Florida Panhandle experienced wind speeds from Hurricane Michael that exceeded the design wind speeds for the region.”
Roueche said it’s important for these structures to be built with a 30-year plan in mind that considers more intense storms, and changing design standards to keep up with climate change and rising seas.
Leavell said The Lodge was built to account for rising seas, noting that it sits at a higher elevation than what federal standards prescribe.
Said Callaway: “You can look at weather patterns and storms we’ve had in the past and into the future, and whether you ascribe to climate change being real or not, being resilient to a Category 4 or 5 storm and 30-inch rains is a fact today.”
She added, “We need to be prepared. You just can’t use a 4-by-4 anymore and call it a piling. We have to do better. There is no excuse not to be.”
Cleary, at USA, said he believes The Lodge’s opening will underscore Callaway’s calls for more preparation.
“The resilience of a structure, to me, is among the most important aspects,” he said. “When a storm like (Michael) comes through, everyone should evacuate. The economic loss and the loss of your belongings is devastating and in many cases, it can be reduced.”
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