How to Protect Your Building from Severe Weather

July 1, 2008
In the throes of hurricane and storm season, is your building ready? Here are five steps for protecting your buildings and occupants from dangerous storms

June 1 marked the start of hurricane season, and destructive tornadoes have been pelting the South and the Midwest since January, making 2008 the deadliest tornado season in over a decade. With the tragedies of Hurricane Katrina and, now, Myanmar's horrific cyclone fresh in our minds, it may seem like severe weather events are escalating in frequency and intensity. Guess what? They are.

Whole towns, businesses, and homes have suffered the consequences, and will continue to see more weather action - and climate change may have helped precipitate this increase of extreme weather across the globe. How will your buildings stand up to severe weather? Have you planned ahead? Preparing your buildings, employees, and tenants for extreme weather situations is no longer a matter of wishful thinking - it's serious and absolutely necessary. Read on to discover five steps that will help you protect your facilities from Mother Nature's wrath.

1. Research
To effectively protect your buildings from danger, you have to know what you're up against. While freak storms are unpredictable, there are still guidelines when it comes to what kinds of weather you can expect, and when, in your geographic location. "Learn about the hazards that are most likely to affect your area," says Greg Carbin, meteorologist with the National Weather Service (NWS)/Storm Prediction Center in Norman, OK. "The more knowledge one has of severe storm formation and the characteristics of tornadoes and other types of severe weather, the more informed the decision-maker will be," he says.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) offers a wealth of information on weather/climate prediction, including detailed regional climate information. According to Randy Jackson, chief meteorologist and cofounder of the Greensboro, NC-based Hazardous Weather Preparedness Institute (HWPI), "Every NWS forecast office has a warning coordination meteorologist or a preparedness meteorologist. Those individuals can really clue [building owners] in to weather events going on in their area and will know who the local emergency managers are." Tapping into region-specific weather and preparedness expertise offered by local NWS offices is "a great place to start," says Jackson. A list of regional NWS offices can be accessed online.

Learning the facts about the severe weather that threatens your region is also advised. The Washington, D.C.-based Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides valuable information, from facts on different types of severe weather to emergency-management guidelines, which will help you do everything in your power to protect employees, tenants, and buildings from extreme weather. Explore the FEMA website for in-depth information on all types of weather and natural disasters, and how to plan ahead.

FEMA also has a risk-assessment software program called HAZUS-MH. Potential loss estimates analyzed by the software include physical damage, economic loss, and social impacts. You can use the free software to estimate the hazard-related damage your building or business could incur, and you can then better prepare for such events.

2. Assess
Once you know the hazards that could come at you, the next step is to know the dangers and weaknesses of your facility. Harry Nolan, chief loss-control engineer at New York City-based E.G. Bowman Co., takes a tactical approach to facilities assessments. "You have to go to each building and see what its hazards are," he says, labeling a building as the "target area" that you want to protect. "Start with the outer perimeter," he advises, "and work your way closer to the target area." Are there bodies of water close by that could lead to flooding? Are there construction zones with lots of debris? What kind of road system leads to (and, importantly, away from) your building? Get out a map and see if there are hazards around your facilities that could be dangerous or debilitating in severe weather situations.

Once you've covered the perimeter of the building, it's time to look inside. First of all, are there clear, well-lit emergency signage and egress information posted? Are there mounted instructions on what to do in case of tornadoes, fires, and other disasters? These are important surface elements that can easily be forgotten, but the biggest problem areas in your building are openings.

"The weak points in a building are always going to be the windows and doors," says Jackson, who also adds air ducts and rooftop units to the list of major weak points. Jackson notices that most facility managers and owners install regular windows rather than a shatter- or impact-resistant variety because of cost. If you are in certain storm-prone parts of the country (Florida's Miami-Dade County, for example), strict codes already mandate missile-resistant windows. If they aren't required in your region and you can't allocate the money to retrofit to storm-ready windows and doors, you definitely need to take a look at the possible damage that can be done to the interior of your building if a window or door is breached, or if a wind tunnel is created. "Any time you channel wind, you literally increase the speed and force of the wind," says Jackson. "That's when you see the ceilings fail, when you see the walls fail, and when you see a lot of airborne debris."

When glass and other debris are hurled through a breached opening at upwards of 150 miles per hour, the interior structure may be virtually demolished. While Jackson acknowledges that it may be impossible to protect your building from a massive hurricane or an F5 tornado, he asserts that proper opening protection is your best bet. "You can reduce the damage that's done by wind by about 54 percent," he says.

3. Fortify
Now that you know your weak spots, it's time to fortify and strengthen your building. If you can afford it, steel-door entrances and shatter-resistant windows are recommended. Other options for protecting windows include:

  • Accordion shutters.
  • Roll-up shutters.
  • Storm panels.
  • Perforated metal screens.
  • Aluminum awnings.
  • Bahama shutters.
  • Colonial/board and batten shutters.
  • Sill track horizontal rolling shutters.

If your building doesn't have a safe room made of steel-reinforced concrete, you may want to consider a retrofit. While it's a costly addition for existing buildings, safe rooms provide a fortified area in which people can hide during severe weather without fear of missile-like debris. With new construction, budget from the start of the project for a safe room with steel doors and a ventilation system.

Another aspect of potential storm damage to consider is power. What happens when the lights go out? Does a generator kick in, or are you left in the dark without air-conditioning and vital systems? Depending on your building type, this may or may not be a huge problem for you. "In a grocery store, obviously, you'd have spoilage; in hotels, after a few days without power, mold and mildew start to set in," says Jeff Custer, vice president of sales at Kohler Power Systems, Kohler, WI. If you consider the potential amount of lost business when you are without power, having a back-up generator will pay off during disastrous events. Referring to 2005's Hurricane Katrina, Ed Paradowski, general manager for Kohler Rental Power, says, "The people who planned proactively were in good shape and were well taken care of, and the people who didn't were on the opposite end."

If you plan on renting a generator when an emergency arises, know exactly what you need to avoid any complications: your voltage, whether you require single- or 3-phase, what your critical loads are, and whether or not there is a transfer switch. With this information, your provider should be able to hook you up with the right equipment.

If finding the money to protect your building from extreme weather is a problem, there is still a long list of no- and low-cost options to consider. To prevent flood damage, apply a waterproof coating or membrane to the exterior walls of the building and install watertight shields over openings. According to Tim Marshall, meteorologist and failure and damage consultant at Haag Engineering Co., Dallas, "There are great cement or wood siding products that help stiffen the wood frame (as opposed to decorative vinyl or aluminum sidings)." Jackson singles out hurricane clips or straps as an inexpensive way to reinforce your building's structural integrity. "Hurricane straps literally take the roof, the walls, and the foundation, and mold them all into one structure. So, not only do you have nails and screws and bolts, but now you have these things holding all of those parts together."

For no cost at all, you can make sure that potential windborne missiles are nowhere near your facility. Pick up dead branches and put away unused equipment and trashcans. If certain items need to remain outside, make sure they're bolted down or secured by chains.

Also, good maintenance can protect your facility during a storm: Make sure any window air-conditioners are installed snugly, refasten outdoor lighting fixtures, trim trees and shrubs, and maintain roofing so potential uplift is avoided in high winds.

4. Plan
"You have to get out of the thought process of, ‘It's never going to happen to me,' " says Jackson. "As a building owner or facility manager, you've got to at least [think about] how you will handle it if the building is damaged, what kind of response plan you have, and what your obligations are to the people in the building." Preparing your emergency-management plan is probably the most difficult, and most important, aspect of severe weather preparedness. You may not be able to stop a hurricane from devastating the physical structure of your building, but what happens once the storm hits is up to you.

"There's no standardized form for emergency planning. You have to look at your building," says Jackson. "Do you have hazardous materials in your building? What's the make-up? Is it a large-span roof or is it a multi-story building? Every one of those things will require a different plan of action." Utilize your local authorities and connect with them on how to plan for your facility.

Chris Maier, national warning coordination meteorologist with NWS, points to FEMA's website as the best place to get help for preparing emergency plans.

Nolan recommends forming a crisis-management team to coordinate the planning process, with each person responsible for his or her floor or section of the building, and the occupants in that section. The higher the number of people trained for emergencies, the lower the risk of injury and damage. You should also have a complete disaster supply kit ready (see Disaster Supply Kit).

Once you've prepared your plan, training and practicing are essential, especially in buildings where there are usually visitors or people unfamiliar with the building and emergency protocol. "Drills are extremely important to help people, especially young people, learn, practice, and remember what actions they should take when severe weather strikes," says Maier.

Your hard work on a thorough emergency-management plan will carry over into non-weather situations, too. "In some regards, if you develop one plan, you're good for a lot of situations: tornadoes, hurricanes, winter storms, or pandemics," says Jackson. "Often, the plans will blend together, with some adjustments depending on where you are and what the crisis is."

5. Watch
With a strong plan in place and your building fortified to its full potential, all you can do is stay alert. According to Maier, the average lead time for a tornado is a mere 15 minutes. While chances are good that you'll probably have more time to prepare for a hurricane, things like severe thunderstorms can form and strike anywhere, any time. One way to be prepared is to purchase a battery-operated NOAA Weather Radio for local updates.

Many local news organizations and weather stations also give you the option of signing up for weather alerts via e-mail or text message. Make sure someone on your staff is designated to be on watch when severe weather is predicted. "It's one of those things we like to turn a blind eye to," says Jackson. "Then, all of a sudden, when the sky starts getting dark, we get nervous and wonder, ‘Are we ready or not?' "

If you've prepared for this year's extreme weather, you won't be left wondering. Plan ahead, be vigilant, and know that you've done your part.

Jenna M. Aker ([email protected]) is new products editor at Buildings magazine.

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