Building a Disaster Resistant Future

By Denise Johnson | April 15, 2013

Be wary of anyone who promises disaster-proof construction. According to the experts, there is no such thing as a disaster-proof home.

“As we like to say here, at some point Mother Nature will overwhelm even the best engineering,” said Julie Rochman, Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) president and CEO.

That does not stop some hucksters from trying to sell the idea.

“Unfortunately, what you see after a disaster is people playing on victims’ fears of a recurring nightmare. The danger is when people start all of a sudden saying, ‘I can prevent this from ever happening again. You can live in a disaster-proof home.’ Very, very unlikely, A, the people would want to live in those types of homes, B, could afford them, and C, that they would actually work at all levels and for all hazards,” Rochman said.

Disaster-resistant building, on the other hand, is doable and something the insurance industry is trying to encourage.

In the future, experts believe that thanks to disaster-resistant buildings, following a catastrophic flood or other event, insurance adjusters will handle smaller losses, getting people back into their homes more quickly and efficiently rather than giant losses.

“The idea is that if we could just get the roof right; just get people to our FORTIFIED Retrofitting Standard…for hurricanes and high wind and hail-prone areas, which is a large portion of this country, we could probably save half of all property losses in a given year,” Rochman said.

Proof is in the testing. In 2012, IBHS conducted a full-scale, high-wind test of commercial structures. One was built using common construction methods and based on outdated building codes, the other was built using current code requirements for masonry construction. There was close to 10 times more physical damage to the normally constructed building versus the “stronger” building: $44,769 versus $4,660.

Rochman said her organization and others are identifying affordable, workable solutions that will narrow the damage and destruction path of storms, allowing people to stay in their homes and businesses, and letting the communities recover much more quickly.

That day of turning a catastrophe into small losses is not here yet.

Those advocating disaster-resistant building say they are making some progress, but that it too often takes a major disaster for communities to take new building materials seriously. The attention is never more razor sharp than after a catastrophe.

“It is very challenging to get somebody to think about hurricanes or floods … when the weather is good. We very frequently align our messaging around weather events,” said Leslie Chapman-Henderson, president and CEO of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH), a consumer advocacy group for strengthening homes formed 15 years ago in response to Hurricane Andrew.

Disaster-Resistant Building Lags

There are several reasons for the slow pace: building codes, cost fears, inertia and lack of education.

The differences in building codes and practices can make the difference in whether a home is still standing after a storm. According to Chapman-Henderson, building codes are a minimum building standard, not an ideal.

“If you aren’t even at the current model code, that means that you’re not benefiting from what somebody thought was the least you could do,” said Chapman-Henderson, a former Allstate claims manager.

Builders can be resistant to change. “I think inertia is one thing. Builders, particularly in places where there are not codes, have been doing things a certain way — we call it tribal knowledge — and they don’t like to change. There’s some resistance there,” Rochman said.

Another barrier to more disaster-resistant building is cost, or the perception that it costs more. Both builders and homeowners believe disaster mitigation upgrades to a home will be expensive.

“One of the things that we try to do at IBHS is to educate people about the relatively small cost of doing things the right way, and doing things the traditional way,” Rochman said.

In 2010, the research facility showed the cost difference for a disaster-resistant residential building was just 3 percent to 5 percent higher depending on building code requirements, which vary by state.

In a post-Sandy analysis, IBHS said that if New Jersey and New York followed “minimal engineering-based hurricane design guidance” it could increase a home’s wind-resistance while only adding up to 2 percent more to the cost of average homes.

Cost fears are largely unfounded, according to Joe Basilice, president of New Orleans-based OceanSafe, a global manufacturer of steel insulated panels. He said disaster-resistant homes are cost-savers because they are built to be environmentally friendly and energy-efficient. And the quality should last.

“The quality control in the construction is very, very important no matter what types of building you’re building, but especially if you’re going to build a hurricane- or a disaster-resistant building. It’s got to be built properly. That’s another very key point,” Basilice said.

He said AIG warranties OceanSafe buildings against natural disasters because of the way they’re constructed.

The consumer group FLASH primarily targets families in its disaster mitigation education because, according to Chapman-Henderson, commercial structures already enjoy the benefit of unique engineering attention.

Disaster Resistant Buildings

According to Basilice, the geographic area mandates the building materials used.

An OceanSafe hurricane-resistant model home built in New Orleans as a demonstration project survived Hurricane Isaac undamaged. The Myrtle Grove home was built with wind-resistant (up to 150 mph) steel structural insulated panels and high-impact, double pane windows, and a standing seam metal roof was elevated 15 feet above sea level.

Less can be more when it comes to a disaster-resistant home.

“In our building, there are no nails. Everything is screwed or bolted. The difference with a structural-insulated panel building, all the pieces make the sum of one part, so it’s almost like building a can. Once you put everything together, it moves in one part, so it’s very, very difficult for the roof to blow off it. It’s very difficult for a wall to blow off. That’s also what gives you such a great insulation, which makes it energy efficient,” Basilice said.

IBHS said using ring shank nails instead of smooth nails or staples to attach the roof sheathing can double the strength of a home’s roof and costs about a $100 for an average home.

There are other steps that homeowners can take to mitigate damage.

“From an insurance perspective, sealing the roof deck is a great way to save on additional living expense claims and business income claims. If you keep the water out, the building remains functional. Sealing your roof deck for a house, the average house is about $500,” Rochman said.

Safer and stronger building is more likely to happen where there is community appreciation and involvement, according to these veterans.

“We always talk about hardening individual structures as part of community resilience. If the houses are gone and the businesses survive, the workers aren’t going to be showing up for work, they’re going to be concerned about getting their own lives back on track, and rightly so. If the businesses are gone… then there’s no job, there’s no tax base, so the community can die from that as well,” Rochman said.

The IBHS president said it’s easier for a community to embrace retrofitting changes as opposed to new construction. A homeowner’s association or a mayor could make that decision.

Some insurers offer premium discounts or provide other incentives for building stronger, as well.

“You don’t have to tear down everybody’s houses and start over,” Rochman said.

As an example, Rochman cited the 13 FORTIFIED homes that stood directly in the path of Hurricane Ike in 2008. Ten of the 13 homes sustained only minor damage. According to IBHS, the three homes that were destroyed were damaged by the debris from the other destroyed homes.

“The most effective implementation of better construction is when whole communities embrace the idea,” Rochman said.

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