By Kirk Stelsel
If you feel like you’ve heard more about deadly, destructive weather events recently, it’s because you have. According to a January statement from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), we should “get ready for more extreme weather and increasingly serious impacts on health, the economy and the environment.” As the cost of lives and rebuilding efforts due to these storms continues to mount, the media, lawmakers and the general public have taken increasing notice with each passing event.
The cover of June 3 issue of Time simply stated “16 minutes.” That’s the amount of time the residents of Moore, Okla., had to find a safe place to hunker down between the first warning and touchdown of a devastating EF-5 tornado. Among the survival stories was that of a mother who secured her children in an interior closet only to discover it would not be sufficient for the storm that was bearing down on her family. With minutes to spare, she found safe haven in the storm shelter of a neighbor and emerged to find her house leveled.
While the ability of weather authorities to provide earlier and more accurate warnings can help save lives, no amount of “take cover” or evacuation orders solves the core issue: the ability of the community to withstand and rebound from a major weather event. That is rooted in decisions made long before the first menacing cloud or drop of rain begins to appear.
With communities from coast to coast at risk of some form of extreme weather, resilient building materials that can save lives and emerge intact from extreme weather are rising to prominence if for no other reason than the cost is simply too great to ignore them.
Following Superstorm Sandy, coastal New Jersey residents returned to what they once called home to find a water-ravaged landscape. The iconic boardwalk was destroyed, as were the businesses that depended on its tourists. More than 300,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. Devastation was rampant. One home, though, featured in the Spring 2013 issue of Precast Solutions, stood tall in the face of the storm’s fury. It survived because it was built with survival in mind. The materials and design were chosen not for cost savings, but for longevity. The house was made of precast concrete.
After an EF-5 tornado tore through Joplin, Mo., it left a sea of destruction in its wake. Yet an image used by the media showed a hospital that provided a critical barrier and protected the lives of patients and employees by standing up to the deadly winds and debris. It, too, was constructed of precast concrete.
In 2011, after a particularly bad stretch of weather caused more than 342 deaths – mostly due to tornados – an NPCA member in Mississippi was interviewed by the local news about his precast concrete storm shelter rated for winds up to 250 mph. His phone started ringing off the hook with inquiries about the product.
Precast concrete has proven to be a building material that can stand up to extreme weather. It’s why many NPCA members manufacturing storm shelters are also National Storm Shelter Association (NSSA) Producer Members. An NSSA member manufactures structures to preset standards and meet the ICC 500 code. It’s also why precast structures are often the only ones left standing after a tornado or hurricane. But decisions on resilient building materials must be made during the building or rebuilding process in order to save lives and money down the road.
The storms aren’t going away, but the mindset of government officials, city planners and homeowners is beginning to shift. Following the tragedy in Moore, schools in high-risk areas for tornados have taken action by retrofitting existing structures and building new ones with storm shelters. Walker Valley High School in Ohio recently added a precast concrete safe room during an expansion. In Missouri, Hollister High School incorporated a secondary gym and weight room into a 6,400-sq-ft safe room constructed of precast concrete. Starting in 2015, all schools with 50 or more occupants and located in areas with design wind speeds of 250 mph will be required to have storm shelters that meet ICC 500 requirements by the International Building Code.
Perhaps just as critical as protecting citizens is protecting the emergency services in a community that will help those in need after a storm. If the police, fire department or EMS cannot respond, or if the hospital can’t treat victims, there’s little help for those in need.
In the Caribbean, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) stands at the ready for those in peril on the sea. But to be effective, the station itself needs to be able to withstand storms. A new hangar in the Bahamas is designed with exactly that need in mind. By utilizing an engineered precast concrete system from Oldcastle Precast, the USCG built a first-of-its-kind hanger that can withstand Category-5 storms. The structure replaces a steel hangar leveled in 2008 by Hurricane Ike. High-strength, 6,000-psi precast concrete was used for the walls, doors and all other structural components of the 20,000-sq-ft structure. In addition to the hangar, the development includes a HAZMAT storage building and a residential structure.
Precast concrete plants manufacture a wide variety of products that provide everyone from homeowners to city planners with peace of mind. Whether it’s small storm shelters, infrastructure or above-ground building products, the quality, strength and durability of precast concrete is unmatched.
To find an NPCA member in your area, visit precast.org and click on the “Find Precast Products Now” button at the top of the page.
Kirk Stelsel is NPCA’s director of Communication.