NEW ORLEANS – Floodwaters 5 feet deep filled sculptor and retired Navy Cmdr. Robert Noguere's bayfront home when Hurricane Ivan made landfall in 2004.
More than three years of renovations and $200,000 later, friends now jokingly call the 6,000-square-foot home and art studio "Fort Noguere."
From watertight ship doors and a 400-pound main door to exterior walls reinforced with concrete and rebar, the home is now ready for the next brutal hurricane — similar homes did well during Ivan and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Noguere says he simply doesn't want an even small weakness to wreak havoc on the whole structure. "I'm not trying to prove anything here — I consider this adapting to the environment," he said.
Tired of the anxiety that comes when hurricanes threaten the U.S., some homeowners along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts have opened their bank accounts to make their homes into fortresses that can withstand winds and flooding well beyond what building codes require. Some fortress owners in the possible path of Tropical Storm Gustav say that will leave them better prepared if the storm strikes.
Gustav made landfall Tuesday as a Category 1 hurricane that battered parts of Haiti. It has since weakened to a tropical storm, but forecasters say it could strengthen over the Gulf of Mexico's warm waters and pummel the Gulf Coast as a Category 3 hurricane next week.
"If I was still on level ground like I was before in the other storms, I know I would be dreading (Gustav)," said Dr. Alan Krys, whose Gulf Breeze home suffered heavy damage from Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Krys and his wife repaired the home, but it was damaged again when Hurricane Dennis hit the Florida Panhandle a year later. The couple has since rebuilt it with reinforcements — on pilings 18 feet above Pensacola Bay, which backs into their home.
More people than ever before are building homes with concrete exterior walls and other concrete features, said Jim Niehoff of the Portland Cement Association, a national industry group. He said the association always gets more inquiries about concrete home construction after major hurricanes.
Florida has the strongest hurricane building codes in the nation, adopting the International Building Code in 2004 and adding other hurricane-specific provisions. Several other hurricane-prone states including Louisiana, Alabama, Texas and Mississippi have followed the example and adopted the international code on some level, according to the International Code Council.
But many homeowners like Noguere say they've learned from previous hurricanes that meeting code sometimes isn't enough protection.
Julie Rochman, president of the Tampa-based Institute for Business and Home Safety, said strong building codes force homeowners to pay for fortifications instead of gadgets, landscaping, granite countertops and other less necessary improvements.
"There still tends to be more value put on the things we would like to show our neighbors," she said.
And even though the strongest homes sometimes can't survive every disaster, it isn't stopping some builders from trying to construct an indestructible home.
Pensacola developer and builder Philip Russell uses special hurricane nails, marine-treated exterior plywood sheeting, impact-resistant windows and ultra-strong concrete. One of his customers was Krys, who incorporated wind-resistant materials and reinforced the roof.
Krys doesn't figure he'll break a sweat this hurricane season, but he does plan to take precautions and perhaps evacuate if his home ends up in Gustav's path.
"I feel a lot better now though because at least I know I will have a home to come back to," he said. "It's like you've been slapped so hard in the past that you can almost still feel it. I just know how much work it was rebuilding everything."