There's nothing you can do to stop a hurricane from striking, but there are things to look for in a new home that might lessen the storm's impact. If retiring along the Atlantic or Gulf coast is your dream, or you're looking for that perfect beach house, there are a number of housing features to consider.
The National Hurricane Center anticipates a "normal" hurricane season this year. That means we can expect about five to seven hurricanes -- one or two of which could make landfall in the U.S. If a hurricane strikes, homeowners need to be prepared to defend against wind and water damage.
John W. Knezevich, vice president of the LZA Technology office in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has been working with industry, governments and commercial builders to help make buildings more hurricane resistant. He offers a number of suggestions for homebuyers looking to protect their investment.
Knezevich's top priority, "if you have the option, a masonry home is a far better choice" than traditional wood frame construction. He says concrete has been the dominant construction material in South Florida for good reason. Though wood frame homes can be built to withstand high winds, "the methods of construction are much less forgiving in wood." He says, "concrete and masonry buildings are inherently stronger so there can be less precision in the construction."
Second, Knezevich recommends you hire an independent structural inspector to offer "another set of eyes overseeing the contractor." He says such expertise and oversight can provide "tremendous benefits."
Third, be sure to have impact resistant shutters. These are not the decorative shutters common to most homes. Hurricane shutters are designed to cover windows to minimize damage. Knezevich says the cheapest and most popular option are simple storm panels, which look like a corrugated roof deck. They are installed over windows when a hurricane threatens.
Fourth, pay attention to the type of windows and doors you have. "Garage doors are a classic weak spot," according to Knezevich. To get proper protection for your home, find out what the wind load rating is in your community. Knezevich says that's something any competent engineer should be able to determine. Armed with that information, talk to your builder or remodeler about the materials planned for your home.
A fifth item to think about is the roofing material for your home. A tile roof is the traditional choice for hurricane-resistance since it "weighs more" and "it would take a stronger wind to lift it off." Knezevich says the more common asphalt roof can be built to withstand strong winds, but you must select an asphalt shingle that carries a wind load rating high enough for your area.
In addition, keep that roof simple. A low-slope roof without gables, patio overhangs or fancy design elements "doesn't give wind a whole lot to act on." When a roof gets too complicated, Knezevich says engineering and construction can break down.
When it comes to flooding, Knezevich says the best thing "is to evacuate." He says "there's not a lot you can do economically" to protect your home. For personal belongings, he suggests "the top shelf of your closet is just a far better place than the floor of your closet." And Knezevich warns that a refrigerator -- despite its height -- does not make a good storage area. He tells the story of one person who was rushing to evacuate and piled valuables on top of their refrigerator. The problem is, refrigerators float -- sideways.
Depending on where you're building, putting your house on stilts can be an option to minimize flooding. Knezevich notes that in the Florida Keys no new construction is built on the ground.
Knezevich says building homes to withstand hurricanes and strong winds requires -- forgive me -- a sea change -- in the way people think about building. He says builders think "vertically" instead of "horizontally." They're designing houses to withstand the weight of things like snow, since that can fall every year. If a house collapses under that first snow, you'll know there's a problem. When it comes to horizontal winds, you could go 25 years without that construction being put to the test.
In the wake of this year's first named storm, Allison, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is pleading with hurricane area residents to make proper preparations. No matter how sturdy your home, FEMA advises people to review evacuation plans to protect themselves. To protect property, FEMA advises hurricane shutters and strengthened garage doors. FEMA also encourages residents to obtain flood insurance.
Carol Ochs is a Washington-based reporter who covers new home trends.