Conference stresses 'hidden dangers' of windstorms

November 14, 1999

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Mention the nation's most damaging natural disasters and most people probably think of earthquakes and floods. Wind probably isn't even on the list.

But it should be, according to Michael Gaus, Ph.D., University at Buffalo professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering and president of the American Association of Wind Engineering, since the most vulnerable structures are low-rise buildings, such as residences.

To focus attention on wind and the massive amount of damage it causes every year, Gaus and colleagues at Texas Tech University are holding a free, public-policy symposium, "Reducing Losses from Windstorms: Hidden Dangers in New and Existing Construction," Nov. 18-19 in Washington, D.C.

The symposium is designed to bring together a broad spectrum of public- and private-sector participants from government, architecture, engineering and construction to find common ground on which to develop a national plan for wind-hazard mitigation.

"From a standpoint of wind safety, we have millions of defective buildings in the U.S., and most of them are private homes," said Gaus. High-rise office buildings and other structures usually are quite safe, Gaus noted, because they have been engineered; that is, they have been constructed with the consultation of professional engineers. Private homes, however, are "nonengineered" structures, he pointed out.

"If you're standing next to the World Trade Center during a windstorm, you can feel pretty secure," said Gaus. "I wouldn't say the same thing if you are standing next to your house."

According to the insurance industry, recent losses from windstorms and wind-related events, such as hurricanes, tornadoes and frontal winds, account for an estimated 70 percent of its annual payout for natural-hazard losses.

"In Hurricane Andrew, 141,000 families lost everything they ever owned," said Gaus, noting that after a week or two, media attention faded away.

Such huge losses, he said, can be attributed, in part, to the lack of a serious wind-research program nationwide, which could help establish methods for preventing wind damage. "Very little research has gone on in wind engineering, since there is so little funding for it," he explained.

That lack of support stems from what Gaus calls the psychological response to windstorms, which occur often and so don't get as much attention as do other natural disasters.

"Earthquakes, for example, hit with a bang, and then they may not occur again for 12 years," he said. "But wind events happen every year, and each year, on average, they destroy or make uninhabitable about 30,000 homes or apartments in the U.S."

Gaus, who spent 25 years as an National Science Foundation administrator, was involved in starting the nation's earthquake-engineering research program in the early 1960s, and hoped to include earthquake hazard mitigation in a program looking at all natural hazards, including wind.

But after the great Alaskan earthquake in 1964, Congress allocated a research program for studying earthquakes, while support for some other natural hazards lagged.

While Gaus advocates spending more money on mitigating all types of natural hazards, he noted that annual support from NSF for wind-engineering research has sharply declined -- from about $2 million 5-10 years ago, to a current level of just $600,000.

With so little research support, the field is not attracting engineers, leaving wind research almost completely neglected in the education and training of future engineers.

At the same time, he said, the lack of "improved technical input" for meaningful, enforceable building codes in the nation also contributes to a lack of safety.

"Building codes were originally intended to provide a minimum code for buildings," said Gaus, "but contractor and suppliers have turned it into a maximum code. If you ask a contractor why he built something a certain way, he will tell you, 'it meets the code,' as though that is the very best standard he needs to meet. It's not. It's the bare minimum."

There is a bright spot, Gaus noted. Just last month, the Building Code Congress voted to adopt a new building code that includes greatly improved wind-loading standards.

And this week's symposium is designed to initiate the development of an integrated National Windstorm Hazard Mitigation Strategy and Plan.

"Once there is a damaging event, the disaster-relief agencies run out to the site and provide relief and assistance," Gaus said, "but there's no money for studying why the structure fell down in the first place. With this symposium, we want to come up with an economic approach to making homes and small buildings more wind-resistant."
-end-
A copy of the symposium's program is available at http://www.civil.buffalo.edu/aawe.

University at Buffalo

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