The Atlantic is teeming with tropical systems this week as South Florida recovers from Hurricane Irma and residents debate a full-scale dismantling of hurricane shutters or a piece-meal take-down.
Three areas are being watched by the National Hurricane Center. None of them are expected to impact Florida in the short term, but the busy season is only halfway through and the state is still vulnerable to storms well into October.
As of the 5 p.m. Friday advisory from the National Hurricane Center, Hurricane Jose was 650 miles east of North Carolina and moving toward the north, Tropical Depression 14 was sputtering in the far eastern Atlantic, and Invest 96L was expected to become a tropical cyclone over the weekend.
While hurricane shutters are an eyesore and can be a fire hazard, they’re also part of living in South Florida.
One hurricane expert, who spent decades at NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division and lives in Miami, said he has no plans to take his down after Irma.
“Let me tell you what I’m doing with the shutters — nothing,” said Hugh Willoughby, a distinguished research professor at Florida International University who has flown more than 400 missions into the eye of tropical cyclones as a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Hurricane season runs through Nov. 30. Willoughby said he’s sent personalized Christmas cards in the past that still show the shutters up on his house. He thinks this may be one of those years.
“I may take a few down,” he said. “But it ain’t over, till it’s over.”
Whether to keep them up or not is a decision that depends on multiple factors, including a person’s risk tolerance, willingness to live in darkness, ease of installation, building or housing safety codes, and employment — first responders and others who work through a storm may have less time to put up shutters when a system threatens.
Depending on the municipality, leaving hurricane shutters or plywood up may also be a code enforcement or housing code violation.
Palm Beach County Code Enforcement Director Robert Santos-Alborna said that if a home is boarded up with hurricane shutters, state code requires there be emergency escape openings in every room, but it doesn’t specify a number of days they can be covered. If a home is vacant, the shutters can remain up indefinitely.
“A lot of people complain because it can be unsightly,” Santos-Alborna said. “But there is nothing under property maintenance code that forbids it.”
Santos-Alborna said he would consider writing a notice giving someone 30 days to correct a shutter violation under the housing code regarding safety, but not when there are extenuating circumstances.
“When we have a hurricane or any other emergency, we are a little more flexible,” he said. “Immediately after the event we just went through, there is an adjustment period and we take that into consideration.”
In West Palm Beach, permitted shutters can remain up indefinitely per city code, but unpermitted shutters or plywood need to be taken down unless there is a watch or warning in effect. In 2007, the West Palm Beach Commission voted to mandate shutters be taken down within three days of a storm. It later repealed the ordinance after social agencies raised concern about forcing seniors to take such quick action.
Homeowners’ associations may have their own rules.
Michael Gelfand, a West Palm Beach-based attorney who focuses on association law, said the general rule is shutters can stay up for one week, but individual communities can set their own standards.
“Some communities have an absolute amount of days, but rarely is it less than a week,” Gelfand said. “In almost all circumstances, folks work this out among themselves.”