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Buildings drying out; how will they fare in next storm?

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The high winds and heavy rains that swept through the area Nov. 15 shifted our focus back to Hurricane Florence — specifically the damage so many structures sustained from rain infiltration.

Not the river-flooding damage, and not water damage caused by trees through roofs or missing shingles. Rather, the number of homes and buildings that had no visible structural damage, yet enough rain got in to make them uninhabitable, mainly from the ensuing mold.

We’ve lived through enough storms that the details of past storms are sketchy, but we don’t recall such widespread rain intrusion from, for example, 1999’s Hurricane Floyd, another slow-moving storm with torrential rain.

Hurricanes, of course, cause a variety of problems — straight-wind damage, flooding, rain intrusion and trees uprooted, to name a few. And with damage so widespread and extensive, we’ve yet to get a handle on exactly what transpired during Florence, and why some structures fared so much better than others. For example, education buildings were hit quite hard, including those in county school districts and at UNC Wilmington. Florence damaged UNCW to the tune of $140 million.

As we noted, the big culprit seemed to be rain intrusion, but not necessarily through gaping holes. (An exception is UNCW’s Dobo Hall, which had part of its roof blown off and was inundated with more than 2 feet of rainwater. Of course, why a university science building erected just 20 years ago on a coastal campus lost part of its roof to a Category 1 hurricane is a question that needs to be looked into.)

Our main concern — especially regarding the educational facilities — is that while the mold and moisture are gone, do the structures remain as vulnerable and penetrable to rain as they obviously were when Florence hit? Beyond the cost of repairs — much of which will be covered by insurance and FEMA money — the disruption in class time was even more costly.

That begs the question: If we were to have a Florence sequel next year, will we see schools in parts of coastal North Carolina closed again for such long periods — more than a month in Onslow County? That can’t become a new normal. What, however, must become a new normal is adding “hurricane resilience,” and not just in structures. It is needed in our roads and highways, sewer treatment plants, water supplies, stormwater systems and waste disposal facilities for livestock, just to name a few of the weak points.

When we build and rebuild, the standards need to be higher and the designs smarter. And there are resources out there. The Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, a nonprofit research organization supported by property insurers and reinsurers, has established a certification process it calls FORTIFIED. The IBHS describes it as “the national standard for resilient construction,” and the standards are tailored to the risks most likely to affect your area.

Another nonprofit, the Resilient Design Institute, describes its mission as “enabling buildings and communities to survive and thrive in the face of climate change, natural disasters and other disruptions.” It promotes not just new and more-resilient design techniques, but also the use of resilient materials, such as moisture- and mold-resistant drywall and other interior finish materials that can dry out if they get wet and not require replacement.

As for water intrusion in seemingly undamaged buildings, Horizon West, a large planned community near Tampa, Florida, notes that hurricanes blow rain and groundwater at high speeds, for long durations and in unexpected directions and angles. There are a variety of ways the water gets into structures, among them: under and around doors, through roof and attic vents, around windows, foundation absorption, through block walls, broken and missing mortar joints, and in the myriad cracks and unsealed seams we never notice.

All of these groups make one point clear — resiliency is not 100 percent protection. That’s not going to happen. Rather, it’s about preventing what damage we can, mitigating the damage that does occur and using design strategies and materials that can, for example, withstand moisture, making it much more likely that even if a building has to be evacuated, the occupants — be it a single family or 25,000 students — can return much quicker and with far less disruption.

This approach must be our new normal.

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