Shutter up! Hurricane-survival lessons we can learn from old buildings

The evolution of hurricane shutters

By Tim Norris

Rebuffing hurricanes is not an open-and-shutters case, Michael Bornstein concedes, but for most area residents, openings and shutters are weapons of choice.

Learning where and how to use them is a lesson in technology, folk wisdom and history.

As Lantana’s town manager, Bornstein knows that another storm will find Palm Beach
County sooner or later. The area’s oldest buildings and their button-ups might
offer lessons in how to come through.

Where Bornstein is standing one recent afternoon, bright blue and pink Bahama
shutters belly out from windows near the northeast corner of Old Key Lime House.

“Even in ancient times, without glazed surfaces,” he says, “this was the obvious
solution for safety in a storm.”

Storekeeper and postmaster Morris B. Lyman — who later named Lantana for a flowering plant — and relatives built the wood-frame house by hand, from Dade County pine, the hardest wood locally available. The year was 1889 and the location a point on the Intracoastal Waterway’s west bank .

The building, always a family home and harboring a succession of restaurants, has
weathered Florida’s worst tempests, including the Lake Okeechobee hurricane of
1928, the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 and the triple whammy of 2004 and 2005:
hurricanes Frances, Jeanne and Wilma.

The third strike almost was a game-ender. At the Key Lime House and the whole
coastal area around it, Wilma found the atmosphere congenial.

In the restaurant’s casual waterside dining space, the storm tossed aside silverware and shot glasses and other souvenirs and, instead, took the tin roof, twirling it up and over the house itself and dropping it in the parking lot out front. Any opening into a sealed building brings a dramatic increase in pressure that can literally raise the rafters.

Whenever co-owner Kathy Cordero glances at historic photos on the restaurant’s wall
gallery, she sees the result: a crazy quilt smash-and-scatter of ruin. “It was a typical Florida tin roof, and it just went,” she says.

The main house and its steel Bahama shutters, meanwhile, suffered dents and dings
but stood fast.

Traditional crafts still work

Although side-mounted colonial and top-mounted Bahama shutters made of wood have covered windows in America’s coastal areas for more than 300 years, one storm changed the material game. After Hurricane Andrew and its spawn of tornadoes flattened a good part of Homestead in 1992, construction codes statewide started
mandating better protection, bringing new plastics and carbon fiber and metal alloys into play.

From where she sits, in the coffered library of the Preservation Foundation of Palm
Beach, Janice Owens, its director of education, appreciates the importance of technology and style. She also sees a simpler story, one she grew up with in Palm Beach County.

“We had aluminum awnings that you bolt down, and they’re still on my father’s
house,” she says. “Now I have corrugated aluminum. A lot of people still use plywood on their buildings, and it works.”yes"

Plywood sheets 5/8-inch to 3/4-inch thick, anchored to sturdy window frames or walls
with barrel bolts, can match steel panels for strength. History might seem to promote technology, Owens suggests, but it also reveals simpler truths.

The day that Wilma hit the Old Key Lime House, something else stood fast: the roof
on its outdoor bar. The bar is a chickee — palmetto thatch on a bald cypress log frame — installed by Seminole craftsmen and women. It stood partly because it allowed air, even driven at 125 mph or more, to pass through openings at either end. The Cordero family hired Seminoles to rebuild the open-air restaurant the same way, and, even in summer heat and gearing up for football crowds, it stays remarkably cool.

Sometimes simpler, Kathy Cordero says, is better.

Tradition can be, too. Colorful shutters such as the Key Lime House’s Bahamas, Bornstein says, help celebrate the life here.

“I love the ocean in all its temperaments,” he says. “It’s beautiful when it’s flat and shiny, but there’s something wonderful about the danger of it when it’s really stormed up. The shutters can show that beautiful village structure so familiar in Florida, but there’s still a hint of danger that makes you feel closer to reality. Shutters are there for a reason.”

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