Windows Lost To Wilma

Oct 26, 2015

Buildings in Brickell lost dozens of windows.
Credit Charles Trainor Jr. / Miami Herald

Before Hurricane Wilma hit Miami 10 years ago,  the tall buildings in Brickell had never had to contend with anything like the more than 100 mph winds the storm brought.

And while the buildings survived, their windows did not fare as well. Broken glass became one of lasting symbols of Wilma’s destruction.

The morning after Wilma made landfall, Santi Gabino left his apartment near Dadeland to go to work at the Four Seasons Hotel in Brickell. On the way in, he thought about picking up a cup of coffee and a donut.

“When I finally turned onto Brickell that’s what was shocking,” Gabino recalls. “I mean it literally looked like a bomb had gone off. There was just water as far as the eye could see, glass as far as the eye could see. But I hadn’t, at that point yet, looked up.”

Above ground, the glistening buildings were pockmarked by missing glass. Buildings like the Greenburg Traurig and Espirito Santo buildings were missing dozens and dozens of windows.

“I mean you could literally peer into people’s offices,” said Gabino. “You had paper raining down on the streets below. I mean it was shocking because no one expected that that was supposed to happen.”

Fernando Leal captured this the day after Wilma made landfall in Miami.
Credit Fernando Leal

Fernando Leal was on vacation in Miami during Hurricane Wilma, staying at a friend’s apartment in Brickell. As the storm hit, he began filming from the window. In the distance, he could see a construction crane spinning like a top. But closer up, the window itself was a moving object, bowing in and out.

“I was really, really close to the window. And in different moments I said, “wow, this is going to explode”… but I said OK, it’s going to be a good shot if this explodes,” said Leal.

While his window stayed intact, Leal went out the next day and snapped pictures of windows that did explode—fist-sized glass shards and tempered glass rubble was strewn all over streets.

“It was like if someone had a giant machine gun and started spraying with bullets over the buildings,” remembers Alan Ojeda, a local developer who was out checking one of his buildings.

At the time, Ojeda was just starting to think about building an office tower in Brickell made of glass.

Alan Ojeda in the lobby of 1450 Brickell with a sample of the glass that coats the building.
Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN

“And I said, ‘what can we learn from this?’ ” said Ojeda. “So, what we learned was that the [building] code was and is wrong.”

Florida’s building code only requires high-impact glass on the first 30 feet of a building in hurricane zones. The rest can be less sturdy, low-impact glass. But many of the windows that broke during Wilma were higher than 30 feet.

So Ojeda decided to take that high-impact glass and put it over the entire building—500 feet into the sky.

During the design phase, Ojeda tested a sample of the glass by shooting wooden beams at it from a cannon. The glass cracked but stayed intact. This type of glass is what now covers all of Ojeda’s building, 1450 Brickell.

He claims it’s the most hurricane-proof building in the U.S. 

Even after the destruction from Wilma, though, some building owners fought to rebuild using old, weaker standards and a few of them won.  They replaced windows that blew out during Hurricane Wilma with the same kind of glass.

But even the new glass hasn’t been tested because Wilma was the last hurricane we’ve had.

“I think everybody needs to be aware that Wilma was nothing,” said John Morales, chief meteorologist for WTVJ NBC6. “Now, I’m not trying to dismiss or minimize what folks went through.”

He lives in Brickell now and says he wouldn’t let his family stay in their condo during a hurricane, and they live in one of the newer buildings, built to higher standards.

“If we were ever to get another hurricane like the 1926 great Miami hurricane, it’s going to be a test and it’ll be history in the making.”