The insurance industry hopes a 21,000-square-foot lab in rural South Carolina can help revolutionize the way homes are built and stem the cost of Mother Nature's disasters.
Officials at the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety say the wake of destruction left by hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters can be greatly reduced with construction choices that cost little extra upfront. They hope research at the facility persuades people to make those choices, ultimately saving lives and money.
In 2012, there were 11 billion-dollar-plus disasters nationwide, according to the National Climatic Data Center. They caused more than $110 billion total in damages and 377 deaths — for the second-costliest year on record, with Sandy alone accounting for $65 billion.
The price tags are not sustainable, yet people continue to build and rebuild without the next disaster in mind, IBHS president Julie Rochman said.
"We cannot continue this cycle of destruction. We've got to learn from the loss of life and the huge amounts of federal spending and private sector spending," she said. "We can break these cycles. We know what to do. It's simply a matter of will to do so."
Since the facility opened in fall 2010, it has simulated hurricane winds, hail storms and wildfire ember showers to scientifically test the effects of different construction and landscaping methods on full-size model homes — and provide the public a visible comparison. The six-story-tall test chamber can generate winds of up to 130 mph and rainfall equal to 8 inches per hour.
Officials hope the Chester County facility drives market changes in construction practices, much as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety did for vehicles.
On Nov. 12, four Republican congressmen visiting the facility watched a wildfire demonstration and participated in a round-table discussion with industry and fire safety leaders on how to turn the institute's research into common practice.
"These natural disasters seem to be getting bigger. The damage certainly is much larger," said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which handles disaster management. "Whether it's Sandy or Katrina, it's important that we're being smarter about how we're building things and the mitigation costs. What we can learn from this type of facility is extremely important."
Some of the lessons cost little to no money. U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, whose district includes the facility, said the wildfire demonstration emphasized the need to clean his gutters of pine straw.
Research has led to three additions in the 2015 International Residential Code — the first update since its opening — all relating to sealing roofs to keep water out, whether from a thunderstorm or a hurricane. The recommendations add less than $500 to a reroofing job, Rochman said.
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