Reminders from Hurricane Katrina

This week is the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and we have all seen articles on the lessons learned from the storm. Engineers learn something new from every storm. However, I think that Hurricane Katrina just gave us some very strong reminders of things we already knew.

Hurricane Katrina reminded us that hurricanes are flood events as well as high-wind events. And I don’t mean the flooding in New Orleans. No, I mean the flooding along the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Florida.

I witnessed the complete devastation of the Mississippi Gulf Coast from Waveland to Biloxi. Structures within the first few (and often many) blocks from the beach were simply flattened by water. Fortunately, these areas are coming back, but the structures being built there now bear little resemblance to the homes that graced the beach 10 years ago.

I remember my father-in-law having his new house built on the coast in Waveland more than 20 years ago. As a young engineer, I gave it the once over and noted that the builder had connected the roof framing to the top plate, but little else. I made some recommendations, such as continuing the connections down throughout the rest of the house to the foundation. The builder followed my suggestions and then presented my father-in-law with the bill “for your son-in-law the inspector.” He was happy to pay it. Nevertheless, although the house was wind resistant, it could not stand up to the rushing waters from Hurricane Katrina.

Katrina reminds us that the only way to get away from floods, other than not building near the water, is to elevate structures above them. Due to flood regulations, new houses along the Gulf Coast are now elevated high in the air, in the hope of avoiding flooding from future storms. Simpson Strong-Tie is proud to have developed some products during the last few years that make it easier to build structures elevated on pilings.

One such product is our CCQM column cap that strengthens the connection of support beams to masonry piers. Another is the Strong-Drive® SDWH Timber-Hex HDG structural screw, which is meant to replace through-bolts to make the connection of a beam to a wood piling easier and more reliable.

CCTQM Installation

CCTQM Installation

Elevated house built with CCQM Column Caps

Elevated house built with CCQM Column Caps

 

SDWH TIMBER-HEX HDG Screw

SDWH TIMBER-HEX HDG Screw

Hurricane Katrina reminds us of the value of building codes. After the storm, the LSU Hurricane Center conducted a number of simulation studies on the effect of a direct, Katrina-like storm on the states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The simulations were run on the existing stock of buildings, and then run again on the same stock of buildings, assuming that certain features that result from modern building codes were present. These features included shutters or impact-resistant windows, enhanced nailing of the roof deck to the roof framing, framing connected together with hurricane clips and straps to achieve a continuous load path. In addition, in the Louisiana study, a secondary water barrier over the joints in the roof sheathing was added.

The studies found that the decrease in wind damage from the simulated storms was astounding. In Louisiana, the study showed a 79% reduction in economic losses due to wind. In Alabama, the study revealed a 72% reduction in economic losses due to wind. The Gulf states seem to have received the message loud and clear. In the years following Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana adopted a statewide building code and Mississippi adopted a uniform building code for the four counties along the coast. Recently, Alabama has also adopted a statewide residential and energy code. But in general, building codes are still quite varied in coastal states. This report from the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety evaluates the effectiveness of building codes in coastal states.

Finally, Hurricane Katrina reminds those of us who do damage surveys that you need to know what you are getting into before you go. As soon as the storm hit and we saw the scope of the damage, four members of the Simpson Strong-Tie Engineering Department in our McKinney, Texas, office decided we needed to go see the damage first-hand before any repairs were made. So two days after the storm struck, off we went to Jackson, Mississippi. There, we rented two vans stocked up with food, water and fuel. Unfortunately, the fuel and the food/water ended up in separate vans. Before long, we were separated in traffic and could not communicate due to loss of cell signal.

Our team spent two days viewing the damage first-hand along the Louisiana and Mississippi coast, but spent a lot of time our last day trying to find some fuel so we could make it back to Jackson. I remember spending the night in a hotel without power full of storm victims, and then months later receiving the bill and being charged for a movie!

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What do you remember from Hurricane Katrina? Let us know in the comments below.

One thought on “Reminders from Hurricane Katrina

  1. About a year before Katrina, I had designed a senior citizen apt. building to be built in Biloxi. The contractor/developer was upset that I had designed the building for 140 mph wind loads. He said that the local code only required 125 mph and he wanted me to redesign it for the lower wind loads. I pointed out that Hurricane Camille, which leveled Biloxi, had 140 mph winds and that I would not redesign it for lower wind loads. He jacked up his price to the owner and the now over budget project was put on hold. Six months later Katrina hit and wiped out most of Biloxi. Because of the extreme housing need the church sponsor of the building found another contractor and our building was one of the first to go up in the aftermath of Katrina.
    What I never understood was why the local building code had such low wind load requirements in light of the fact that Biloxi had been leveled before. It appears that some lessons are not easily learned.

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