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Volume 6   Issue 9               October  2005

Building Industry Coalition
Investigates Damage from Katrina
by Michael Fischer

Pass Christian, Miss., 11:30 a.m., Tuesday, September 20, 2005: Katrina’s storm surge has devastated this town, smashing homes into piles of rubble like so many sledgehammers through dollhouses. An elderly woman struggles to wade through the remnants of her home looking for anything that might have survived the deluge; a piece of china, a photograph, some trace of her lifetime hiding within the debris.

The Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) led a building industry coalition in an investigation of the areas damaged by Hurricane Katrina. From September 19-22, more than 40 representatives from all walks of the residential construction industry spent three days looking at damage to one- and two-family residences in coastal Louisiana and Mississippi. The primary objectives for the short term included gathering information about the characteristics of damage to homes from wind, wind-borne debris, wind-blown rain and tree falls caused by Hurricane Katrina. 

While it will be weeks before the IBHS analysis of Hurricane Katrina is complete, our team’s survey showed that no windows or doors certified to current industry standards failed during the wind event. All of the failures of windows and doors that we observed appeared to be non-complying product. IBHS will be reviewing product performance as it relates to the recorded wind speeds and the presence of wind-borne debris, but the preliminary observations speak favorably on window and door performance. The key to improving building performance as we look forward will likely be changes in building code adoption and enforcement of the most current industry standards.

Long Beach, Miss., 1:45 p.m., Tuesday, September 20, 2005: We are stuck in traffic on a two-lane road when a Red Cross worker, seeing the IBHS decal on our vehicle, flags us down to ask for help. It seems a family he has met returned to their home to find it had been looted and vandalized after being damaged by wind and floodwaters. The Red Cross worker was hoping to find a FEMA contact to provide assistance for this family that he could not. Promising to call him back later when we found the telephone number for a local FEMA worker, we drove away, wishing we could do more. 

The IBHS team members included insurance and building products representatives, as well as researchers from leading university research programs. Trade associations such as the American Forest and Paper Association, the Engineered Wood Association, the Cedar Shake and Shingle Bureau, the National Roofing Contractor’s Association, the Door and Access Systems Manufacturer’s Association, the Portland Cement Association and the Window and Door Manufacturers Association were represented. The teams were spread throughout the Biloxi, Gulfport, Slidell, Hattiesburg and other metropolitan areas and focused on gathering data on wind damage. Storm surge damage was prevalent throughout the area, but was outside of the scope of the study. IBHS will consolidate the information submitted by the teams and use the data to provide some idea of the performance of residential construction in the affected areas, with the hope of providing regulators with meaningful information about the successes and failures of local building practices. 

Gulfport, Miss., 10:30 a.m., Wednesday, September 21, 2005: A young boy on a bicycle approaches our team as we work our way through the debris in his neighborhood. “Thank you for helping with the disaster,” he said, smiling. Behind the boy in the center of the cul-de-sac is a mountain of storm debris: tree limbs, brush, siding, doors and other items. A crudely painted plywood sign is leaning on the front of the pile. The sign says “Slow—Children.” 

IBHS is a non-profit association engaged in engineering and research related to natural disasters. IBHS members include insurers and re-insurers doing business in the United States. Associate members include other stakeholders and industry partners as well as educational institutions. The IBHS website lists several priorities for 2005:
• Evaluate the merits of disaster-resistant building practices and materials and recommend improvements; 
• Provide technical expertise in public policy and construction arenas on behalf of safe residential and commercial building practices; 
• Conduct consumer education to stimulate property loss reduction activity by home and business owners. 

Pascagoula, Ala., 5:30 pm Wednesday, September 21, 2005: After days of studying damage to businesses and residences in Louisiana and Mississippi from Hurricane Katrina, our team is headed east to Pensacola. We are part of a seemingly infinite parade of traffic back to our hotel where we will meet with the other teams at a post-study dinner to report the results of our investigations and discuss some of the structural failures and successe we encountered during the foray into Katrina’s wake. We will talk about the physical destruction we witnessed, and we will share stories about the human devastation and losses felt by those we met. Driving east on Interstate 10, however, we can see a band of clouds swathed across the horizon in the distance. It is raining in Pensacola, and Hurricane Rita is the cause as the outer bands to her north (cross the Florida Panhandle, bound west to the Texas and Louisiana coastlines). 

The IBHS study includes detailed data on each surveyed property. The team members gathered information about orientation, type of damage, building geometry, construction type, opening size and protection, types of roof covering, and extent of damage. The hope is that the IBHS study will reveal any significant trends pointing to likely causes of damage. By improving understanding of building performance during hurricane events, IBHS will be able to provide advice on improvements to codes and construction practices. Some of the most common building failures the IBHS team observed after Katrina include roof shingle detachment, soffit failure, tree falls and chimney failure. 

Hurricane Katrina provided meaningful data on the state of residential building in Louisiana and Mississippi. The storm wreaked havoc throughout the Gulf Coast and destroyed countless structures, while leaving thousands homeless. The work of the IBHS post-disaster team should help to improve building performance in the future.

Detroit, Mich., 7:30 .am., Monday, September 26, 2005: Upon arriving in Detroit for the International Code Council’s final action hearings, I am greeted with rain showers as the remnants of Rita move northeast. After slamming into the coastline with storm surge, hurricane force winds and flooding rains, Rita spun to the heart of the country and up through the Ohio Valley, causing local flooding everywhere she went. The damage in Texas and Louisiana from Rita’s storm surge appears to be significantly less than Katrina left behind. As further study of the wind damage from Rita progresses we will glean even more information about building performance and continue to improve the safety of the built environment. 

Michael Fischer serves as director of codes and regulatory compliance for the Window and Door Manufacturers Association based in Des Plaines, Ill. He may be reached at mfischer@wdma.com. 

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