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Batten Down the Hatches

Wall of Wind(TM), Florida International University

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On August 21, 2012, a Category 5 windstorm shredded roofs in Miami-Dade County. The good news is that the Category 5 windstorm was a simulation. Only two structures were affected, each the size of a garden shed. One shed used pre-Hurricane Andrew construction codes. The other was put together with stronger standards enacted after Hurricane Andrew. The wind was confined to a big steel hangar at Florida International University’s International Hurricane Research Center, an $8 million facility that stands as a legacy to Hurricane Andrew. Dubbed the “Wall of Wind”, the results of the Cat 5 windstorm simulation were captured on video cameras while the project manager cranked the 12 massive fans up to 160 mph. The result? Both roofs were torn up, but the new roof – based on new building codes instituted following Hurricane Andrew – mainly lost shingles. To see the video, go to http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/08/21/2962175/fius-monster-wind-machine.html.

Preparing for trouble is the cornerstone of effective risk management. It also happens to be a critical factor in protecting property against severe weather. While hurricanes are the most obvious examples of severe weather, thunderstorms, tornadoes and violent windstorms accounted for more than half of the catastrophe losses in the five-year period from 2006 to 2010, according to PropertyCasualty360.

While it’s obvious that property owners along the coastlines need to be concerned about severe weather, meteorologist Jeff Masters, Ph.D., cofounder and director of meteorology at The Weather Underground, says severe weather has become a year-round issue, regardless of where you are located. By mid-August 2012, Masters’ says weather extremes struck nearly 45 percent of the contiguous U.S. states, setting a new U.S. record for the broad distribution of beyond-the-norm weather events.

If you think of windstorms as severe weather, think again. In 2011, there were 76 wind-related deaths, more than double the 2010 total of 33. This number is also above the 10-year average of 45 victims, according to the National Weather Service (NWS). Compounding the severity, windstorm events are often accompanied by flooding from heavy rain or storm surges. 

Preparing for a rough ride

Once a severe weather event hits, it’s probably too late to do much more than find a secure place to ride out the storm. Preparation needs to begin well before the wind starts to blow. The first step is to start with proper construction. Before construction even begins, contractors and developers can work with risk prevention specialists to mitigate potential risks to the property. For example, in the case of protecting a high-rise building from high winds, the risk management focus is on sustaining the reliability of the building, including roofs and windows, and designing or reinforcing a structure to withstand high winds.  There are a number of important items to consider in the design and construction of new structures:

  • — Ensure roof and wall coverings, perimeter flashing systems, and large roll-up “dock” doors meet the appropriate standard for wind resistance;
  • — Consider impact-resistant windows and doors, even if it is not a building code requirement.  This is particularly important where nearby structures have asphalt shingle, clay tile, or gravel roofs; 
  • — Hire a third party roof consultant to help manage and evaluate the roof cover installation;
  • — Conduct non-destructive negative pressure tests on the newly installed roof cover to ensure it meets the wind load requirement specified in the contract agreement.   
  • — Consider perimeter overflow roof scuppers rather than interior overflow drains (interior drains can get clogged with debris during a severe windstorm); 
  • — Ensure rooftop equipment is properly anchored to the roof structure;
  • — Ensure the finished floor elevation and critical utilities are above anticipated flood and storm surge elevations;  
  • — Install an exterior lightning protection system (lightning rods).

For property owners of pre-existing properties, there are a number of corrective actions that you can take to lessen a loss in the event of a windstorm. Here are some suggestions:   

  • Ensure that roof coverings meet the appropriate standard for wind resistance and that they are properly secured and free of damage;
  • Direct roof drain discharge away from a building’s foundation;
  • Keep roof drains clear of debris to prevent build-up or pooling of water;
  • Install impact-resistant windows and doors, or opening protection systems (shutters) as needed;
  • Inspect all fire protection and detection systems;
  • Trim and dispose of landscaping that may become wind-blown debris;
  • Remove any loose yard equipment;
  • Learn proper sandbagging techniques;
  • Elevate stock and supplies in flood prone areas;
  • Properly anchor carports, canopies, overhangs, and rooftop equipment;
  • Install an exterior lightning protection system (lightning rods); and
  • Install surge protectors on all computer systems, telephone lines and other electronic systems to protect against lightning damage that often accompanies windstorms.

Work with your insurer and its risk engineers

Many property insurers work with risk engineers to aid in the underwriting process and to assist clients in taking preventative measures to protect their properties.  Risk engineers can provide valuable insight and detailed exposure analysis, recommendations for adequate property protection systems as well as development of effective pre-emergency plans.

Catastrophe (Cat) modeling is also available to help assess and manage possible losses.  Modeling combines historical disaster information with current demographics and information about existing structures, along with scientific and financial data, such as property market value, to determine the potential cost of natural catastrophes for a specific geographic area. Cat models can also help property owners put adequate property protection systems into place – the right kind of roof, for instance as well as how to develop effective response plans -  long before the hint of any approaching storm.    

In recent years, businesses have learned many hard lessons about the impacts of severe storms. Fortunately these lessons have resulted in a clearer understanding about the vulnerability of structures to natural hazards, like wind’s destructive power. We now know how to minimize future damage in the face of some of nature’s harshest forces. And, we now have the ability to batten down the hatches long before the wind starts blowing. 

David Mikush is a Senior Loss Prevention Consultant with XL GAPS, a division of XL Group’s insurance operation.  

Photo —Wall of WindTM © 2013, Florida International University

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