Sunday, September 10, 2017

Preparing for the storm

John Rogers Cox "Grey and Gold" (Cleveland Museum of Art)

     There seemed little to do Saturday but wait and watch Hurricane Irma as it neared the Florida coast. Hundreds of thousands fled, while the rest stayed glued to reports. I found myself sifting through the many, many stories I've written about hurricanes and tornados over the years, and paused at this one, worth sharing for its look into the mechanics of how wind damage, expected to be widespread, occurs.

     Tornadoes get into a home through the garage.  
     I did not know that. I always assumed that . . . well, frankly, I never really thought about how tornadoes blow houses over. I thought they just knocked them down like a kid kicking over a block castle.
     It doesn't work like that, according to Kim Fuller of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which called again recently to push its Project Impact, an effort to get communities to protect themselves against tornadoes before the twisters strike.
     I got the impression that the federal government is tired of always going in to clean up the mess afterward and finally figured out that if they got everybody to dig into their pockets to shore up their homes ahead of the fact, the damage next time might not be so great or expensive.
     "Prevention' is a new word for us," said Fuller.
     The idea makes a certain rough sense. The flimsier the home, the easier it blows away (that's why trailer parks always get pulverized). FEMA is trying to get owners of today's spit-and-bailing-wire houses to anchor their roofs down and, particularly, bulk up that garage door.
     I always think of garage doors as heavy, particularly those big two-car models. But when you compare it with the construction of a house, a garage door is a relatively fragile construct: a thin, flexible wall of wood that slides, attached to the house itself by a flimsy track or connected by a pair of pivots (assuming your garage is attached to the house; if not, hey, let the tornadoes come!). If high winds blow out the door, what do you have left, particularly with a two-car garage?
     Right. A big, gaping hole in the house, 20 feet wide, a delicious handhold for a tornado to grab the structure and tear it open.
     "That wind's going through there will take the door right off," said Fuller. "Then it just pushes the roof off."
     Ouch. Can't have that. FEMA suggests that homeowners spend a grand or two to shore up their garage doors and other vulnerable areas.
     "We're trying to tell people that preventative measures do work," Fuller said.  
     That strikes me as a hard sell. How many people don't wear their seat belts, which come with the car? Now imagine you had to pay a dollar to buckle up. Nobody would do it.
     Still, FEMA is hopeful.
     "I'm seeing a change in mind-set," said Fuller. "Last year, since Hurricane Floyd, people are saying, 'Enough is enough.' After the tornadoes in Texas, for the first time, we have community officials saying, 'We didn't know there was something we could do.' It's our responsibility to the public to get the information out. There are very simple things people can do to increase their chance of surviving."
     Tornados are not unknown in this area -- the 10th anniversary of the Plainfield twister is coming up this August. But I just can't imagine there are people cautious enough, or with time and money enough on their hands, to shore up their garage doors against the possible advent of tornadoes. But maybe I'm wrong. You can call the FEMA Hotline at (800) 480-2520 and get more information (and it is an interesting call: "If you are calling in response to a disaster, press 1 now. . . .").
     If you end up reinforcing your garage, call me, too. I think the readers would love to meet somebody who's trying to cover all their bases so completely. Stay safe.

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 2, 2000


  1. I'd never heard that, about garage doors. Fascinating. Add that to the list of reasons that the convienence of attached garages is outweighed by the dangers. Fire, ease of entrance for a burglar, carbon monoxide poisoning....
    I was in Lemont's F4 tornado in 1976. It was just forming when it took the roof off the apartment building I was living in. I was lucky. As it moved on, it grew into a horrific monster. A lot of people lost everything.

    Interesting picture, today. My immediate thought was of Ross Lockridge's "Raintree County".

    1. I love the painting atop the blog, as well. Might I suggest that a caption, or identification would be appreciated, NS? : )

    2. Done. John Rogers Cox, "Grey and Gold."

    3. Thanks! Having just looked up a bit of his other work, this seems, as far as I'm concerned, like the visual arts version of a Top 40 one-hit wonder, alas...

  2. The "hard sell" argument can be applied, I think, to the sugar tax issue as well. No one objects, at least in principle, to discouraging over indulgence by the young in sugary drinks, but when there is a cost to it, everyone objects.


  3. Maybe the knowledge can be coded into new builds. California, at least all the buildings my husband built stairs for, has strict earthquake resistance codes. Somehow, the build allows for a set amount of movement. Beyond my capacity to explain, but makes sense.

  4. Everything you need to know about home construction can be found in the story of The Three Little Pigs. But seriously, Florida did implement a strict building code post Andrew. If they can conduct studies that evaluate the validity or failure of the code rules, and adjust accordingly, it would go a long way towards adapting to climate change.

  5. I live in a condo building where half the frontage consists of two banks of garages. Yikes. I might talk to my fellow owners about reinforcing the doors, but I expect it'll be a hard sell. We have it tough enough paying for routine maintenance.


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