Buying a storm-proof home in the Caribbean

Developers are making radical changes to properties to protect them from natural disasters, says Graham Norwood
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The Independent Online

Nature shows no respect for holiday home idylls, as Hurricane Wilma's trail of havoc through the Caribbean and the Florida Keys has shown - but it is at least possible for architects and designers to minimise the threat of destruction.

Take for example the Shoreline development on Grand Bahama, a gated estate of 76 properties adjacent to a large resort. Like all up-market homes in prestigious international tourist areas, these enjoy the usual facilities of swimming pools, tennis courts, clubhouses and restaurants. Most importantly of all for buyers who are paying from $625,000 (£343,000) to $2.5m (£1.3m) per home, they have a prime location - in this case with views of the island's famous Fortune beach.

But while this position makes each home a holiday paradise, it also puts it in the front line of any future hurricane. Therefore the developers have raised the houses on concrete columns to 14ft above sea level and have driven the columns of each property at least three feet into the beachside rock. The ground floor is a steelreinforced concrete slab roughly six inches thick, giving a solid base on which hurricane-proof steel frames are placed. Attached to these are layers of specially treated plywood and "moisture membranes".

All windows are produced from reinforced PVC with hurricane glass panes; all cavities between interior and exterior walls, in under floor areas and roof spaces have been reinforced as well as insulated.

Most Caribbean islands have in recent years insisted that homes have "tie-downs" - metal straps across roofs, especially gable ends, to keep them attached to the walls. Sometimes tie-downs are used across walls and floors, too, to keep them attached to foundations. Some more expensive homes are even "wrapped" in a thin skin of Kevlar, the stuff that flak-jackets are made from and which is lightweight but still stronger than steel.

Estate agents selling properties in areas hit by natural disasters are sanguine, but not complacent. "Most people just need reassurance. The whole [Caribbean] region gets hit by hurricanes in some form pretty much every year and the countries and properties are geared up for it" says James Barnes of Newfound Property International, which began selling properties on Antigua just as Hurricane Ivan hit it in autumn 2004.

In nearby St Lucia, a new development of buy-to-let apartments in a beach resort called Discovery, is targetting British and Irish investment buyers. It is located on what has hitherto been a "safe" area of the island, away from likely hurricane impact, but even so developer Doubloon International is taking no chances in the building of the flats.

"Their external appearance, which makes them look like simple wooden structures, belies the way they are constructed. The timber exterior covers a very strong concrete shell supported by solid foundations, some of which include reinforced concrete piles of at least 30ft," says Doubloon managing director John Verity.

Buyers of the properties - two bedroom units start at $630,000 (£346,000) - will see that roof beams are lashed down with hurricane straps with cast concrete beams loaded over the top, while reinforced shutters adorn the windows. Because much of the damage caused by a typical hurricane comes from rainfall and flooding rather than the wind, a special drainage system rapidly shifts water away from the resort.

There is also a back-up drinking water supply for five days and extensive standby electricity generating capacity. All of this is in compliance with the Caribbean Uniform Building Code (CUBIC) which insists on designs capable of withstanding storms of up to 130mph on St Lucia.

Some homes in Florida now also have special hurricane flood diversion systems, created by the addition of a two-feet thick concrete perimeter wall buried in the soil just outside the foundation, which is designed to prevent flood water washing away the home's base. Some developers are also now including only minimal landscaping in developments as a result of last year's storms where much of the damage to property was caused by flying trees, uprooted by winds.

The American Red Cross has even issued guidelines to housebuilders about "bracing" garage doors - the part of a property most likely to collapse first in a hurricane, according to research.

These new standards, increasingly common in new homes in the Caribbean and South America as well as in the US, are becoming better known to buyers now.

Terry Hawkins, a property consultant in Florida - which has taken the brunt of Hurricane Wilma and was hit by four hurricanes in 2004 - says: "Damage to properties built in the past few years has been minimal compared with older ones. Before the hurricanes, re-sales of older homes were snapped up in a matter of days. Now these properties are staying on the market longer."

The financial importance of developers winning public confidence is immense.

According to estate agent Knight Frank, demand for overseas property rocketed 95 per cent in the decade to 2003 and the firm predicts that it will rise by 10 per cent year-on-year for the indefinite future. Increasingly far-flung locations such as North America, the Pacific Rim and the Caribbean - where extreme weather is commonplace - are gaining in popularity with British buyers.

Partly this is because they offer guaranteed sun and relatively low-cost properties, and partly because places such as Barbados are losing traditional industries like sugar production and are instead promoting global tourism in countries like Britain to provide their future income.

The public is clearly aware of the dangers of extreme weather; for example, tourist levels and holiday home purchases on Phuket, off the coast of southern Thailand, are still below average despite the island having suffered relatively light damage from the tsunami on Boxing Day last year.

But developers in vulnerable regions are working to placate fears and minimise risks, emphasising that buyers should not be deterred. They say freak weather can hit anywhere, not just in hurricane regions - just ask second home owners in the Cornish village of Boscastle.

Further information

Shoreline on Grand Bahama, from Savills International, 020-7016 3740; Newfound Property International, 020-8605 9520; Discovery on St Lucia, from Premier Resorts, 020-8940 9406.