It’s Time to Take a Modern Approach to Building in Tornado-Prone Areas

With the recent violent weather outbreak this weekend causing more tornado deaths in one weekend than the yearlong 2016 total, I am once again raising the issue of better building in tornado zones. First published in 2013, the Dual-Objective-Based Tornado Design Philosophy, defies traditional assertions that there is nothing you can affordably build to withstand tornadoes. Those rebuilding in the aftermath of the devastating storms have affordable options to protect their homes and families from future events.

This revolutionary engineering design concept emerged after Tuscaloosa, Joplin, and Moore tornado investigations. Adding $1 per square foot to the cost of construction to improve structural performance for property protection and incorporating tornado safe rooms for essential life safety can alter the pattern of death and destruction we continue to suffer. This weekend’s tragedy is more evidence that it is time to embrace a better way of building.

As noted in our paper, “Building Codes: The Foundation for Resilience” the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Building Science engineers, and leading academic researchers have called for a way of building to meet the challenge of saving lives while also preserving property in the face of tornado outbreaks.

The research-informed effort comes in response to field investigations that documented a pattern of disproportionate structure collapse in tornado outbreaks. They point out how even small design changes can make a difference, and they have developed guidelines to estimate the tornado-induced loads. This will provide reasonable targets for designers to use in their future work. Homes built to these newer, research-informed guidelines will have the advantage of better wall bracing, improved roof tie-downs, and overall stronger connections.

According to the newly released January 21-22 Southeastern U.S. Tornado Outbreak Report, published by the Wind Hazard Damage Assessment Group (WHDAG) of the University of Florida, the widespread catastrophic failures are not of themselves failures of engineering, but they are the inevitable result of policies that ignore tornado loads from minimum building design standards. It will be up to the populations in our communities (neighborhoods, towns, states) to decide whether to follow the lead of Moore, OK and implement tornado-resilient building codes in the future.

Dr. David O. Prevatt, Associate Professor of the University of Florida, Department of Civil and Coastal Engineering states, “If we can put a man on the moon, we can keep a roof on a house, and our research demonstrates it is possible to design and build houses that protect people and structures from deadly winds. Techniques developed and implemented in Florida that have reduced hurricane losses can be applied and used in houses to also reduce tornado losses.”

This approach is buoyed by the finding by the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) that 95 percent of tornado damage occurs at EF-3 and below. Accordingly, the Dual-Objective-Based Tornado Design Philosophy enhanced practices can bring material increases in home strength. Moreover, since 90 percent of all tornadoes never exceed EF-2 with winds of up to 135 mph, wind-resistant building practices can dramatically improve building performance in nearly every tornado event.

This is possibly one of the most important breakthroughs in high-wind design during the past two decades, as it offers an affordable innovation that can potentially improve life safety and economic well-being for millions of residents throughout the U.S.

Homes are a long-term investment. Eighty percent of our homes are more than 20 years old, and most of them will be around for at least another 30 years. Therefore, it’s important not only for individual families to make careful choices now as they rebuild, but each community must acknowledge its responsibility to rebuild in a resilient way.

The Latest Addition to Our Resilience Heroes Ranks: Max Mayfield—battle-tested weather-safety warrior, and 2015 Weatherperson of the Year

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I thought that writing a post about Max Mayfield would be straightforward because I’ve had the privilege of working with him as a FLASH Leadership Partner for more than 15 years. But in the course of preparing to celebrate him as 2015 National Weatherperson of the Year, I realized that there is so much to say about Max that it is difficult in a short narrative like this.

A Tweet about him might go something like this:

Max Mayfield. Jimmy Stewart/John Wayne mash-up. Kind, principled, yet unwavering. Soft spoken lifesaver of millions. #proven

That’s the short version. Let me also add what is indisputably in the record.

Max is a model husband, father, grandfather, and scientist. During his seven years as National Hurricane Center (NHC) Director, he saved millions of lives by combining his caring, trusted voice with excellent forecasting. His leadership helped guide those in harm’s way, especially during the unprecedented 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons with dangerous and devastating hurricanes like Charley and Katrina. Think lighthouse in a storm. That is Max.

He is revered by his friends and colleagues as a kind, consummate professional, generous mentor, and steadfast advocate for those in the meteorology profession, as well as the profession itself. Many lined up to provide tributes for his recognition as the 2015 National Weatherperson of the Year, including leaders like Former Governor Jeb Bush who worked closely with Max throughout those tough seasons and Governor Mary Fallin from his home state of Oklahoma.

You can view a video highlight reel from the evening here where former CNN Miami Bureau Chief John Zarrella characterized Max’s legacy in modern terms, “How many of you have a Jeopardy question about you? How many have your own App?” (He is now a Hurricane Specialist at WPLG-10 Miami and they have an app called the “Max Tracker”. It has nearly 98,000 downloads. Impressive!)

Here’s how he’s made a difference in the disaster-safety and resilience movement worldwide.

Max was the first NHC Director to formally join us in 2004 to support our cause of protecting families and homes through more resilient building codes and practices. His trusted voice was a game changer for us. He went beyond his traditional role of predicting hurricanes, and used his high profile to advance the idea that property protection isn’t the sole responsibility of government or insurers. He helped leaders and families understand that they can and should make decisions to achieve safety and protect homes simultaneously.

He has supported many of our most important projects, including the Blueprint for Safety, Tale of Two Homes: Hurricane Charley, our Disney experience StormStruck: A Tale of Two Homes, and our own weather app FLASH Wx Alerts. He contributes to our policy forums and annual conferences; has co-published with us on topics like flood safety and much, much more. His presence injects credibility and draws high-value support for the cause.

I am sure you can see why we have selected Max Mayfield as the 2015 National Weatherperson of the Year. He was the clear choice, and can now add our recognition to a list of dozens, including ABC Television Network’s “Person of the Week”; Government Communicator of the Year by the National Association of Government Communicators (NAGC); Presidential Rank Award for Meritorious Service and countless more listed here.

So Max, we look forward to continuing our work with you as we advocate for storm safety and structure resiliency—a cause for which you sounded one of the earliest and loudest trumpets. Meanwhile, please accept our heartfelt congratulations and know that we are #evergrateful.

Live from the National Hurricane Center – Tackling the Prep Paradox

If everything goes as planned, I’ll be at the National Hurricane Center in Miami tomorrow for a Satellite Media Tour with Director Dr. Rick Knabb. We’ll connect live with television, radio and online reporters, editors, correspondents and anchors through satellite link-ups. And they will, in turn, remind their audiences about the need to get ready now for flooding, high winds, hurricanes, and storm surge. We’ll be starting our 20 or so interviews before sunrise, including several segments with The Weather Channel. The “Tour” will last for about four hours.

We use media tours when the weather is quiet as they are a good way to get the public’s attention, but tomorrow should be even more effective because of the recent active tropical weather. Storms like BERTHA, ISELLE, and JULIO get the public’s attention because they showcase a pattern that plays out the same way each time. Those in the expected strike zone, (last week it was Hawaii), join in the frenzied, last-minute rush to the grocery and hardware stores to secure basic necessities while the rest of the world watches to see if they get hit by the hurricane.

This is the paradox that those of us in the disaster safety movement live with: we enjoy people’s rapt attention when storms brew, but often the public focus comes just as the window closes on the opportunity to mitigate storm effects. By the time they believe it can happen to them, it’s often too late to act on beneficial protections like flood insurance.

Somehow, many still don’t realize that nearly all homeowners insurance excludes flood damage, and that flood insurance must be in place 30 days before an incident. Even with our modern hurricane forecasting skills, we do not get a month of lead time before a specific landfall.

I’ve been thinking about this ongoing contradiction. Having people’s attention during a storm or impending disaster can save lives if they heed our program messages such as “Turn Around, Don’t Drown.” However, if they only focus on disaster preparation when trouble is impending, they are likely to suffer unnecessarily.

We know this because for more than three decades, in storm after storm, people have shared their regrets with us after the fact. They regret that lack of planning caused fear and stress for their kids. They regret scrambling for scarce supplies because of procrastination. As they clean up their water-logged homes, they regret that they missed out on simple home protection preps like boarding up, caulking windows, cleaning gutters, trimming overhanging limbs or even changing water runoff patterns in the yard.

They remember for years about how miserable it was to endure a power outage without basics like ice, water, or even peanut butter and jelly, never mind a generator or adequate fuel to run it. And they are surprised and frustrated when they lose power even though they were well outside the storm-impacted area. These regrets are compounded with health and welfare problems when the power goes out in extreme heat like Miami after Hurricane Andrew or winter cold like the Northeast after Superstorm Sandy.

We will never miss an opportunity to leverage the public’s attention with safety and prevention messages when we battle complacency directly ahead of a hurricane. But while the weather is peaceful, we will “tour” via satellite hoping to inspire and quoting Ben Franklin along the way, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”