100 mph wind (simulated) storm hits S.C. town

RICHBURG, S.C. A wind storm ripped through this Chester County town Tuesday at about 10:30 a.m.

In less than thirty minutes, winds exceeding 100 mph left the exterior wall of a concrete building crumbled on the ground.

The violent storm was a simulation by Tampa-based Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, which has a research center in Richburg, about 45 miles south of Charlotte. The $40 million center – the only one of its kind – opened in October 2010 and has simulated the effects of wildfires, hurricanes and wind storms on homes and commercial structures.

The institute’s 13-person team of engineers, scientists and technicians based in Richburg research how buildings hold up in natural disasters to find ways to improve building practices. As natural disasters have become more frequent and destructive in the past decade, insurance industry players have turned to the institute’s research to help lower insurance costs and make communities safe.

“It seems like no part of the country has been immune,” said IBHS CEO and President Julie Rochman. “Once you get a number of communities feeling affected, the conversation is happening in a lot of different places.”

Tuesday’s test was a simulation of winds in a Texas storm. Two identical 30-foot by 20-foot buildings, designed to replicate strip mall-type restaurants, stood side by side in a test chamber larger than four football fields.

The yellow building, labeled “COMMON,” was built according to typical construction standards. The aqua-colored building, labeled “STRONGER,” was built with wind-resistant materials and reinforcements.

More than 100 fans blasted the two structures with wind gusts up to 130 mph. A few minutes into the test, air cannons shot 2-by-4 boards into the front windows of the buildings.

While the “STRONGER” building came out of the test relatively unscathed, the “COMMON” building’s wall crumbled soon after its windows shattered. Roof flashing, a thin metal sheet that keeps water from leaking into the building, began to peel off and an air vent was detached as wind gusts battered the building.

Rochman said Tuesday’s simulation shows that people can build safer, stronger buildings at a low cost – usually for less than 5 percent of the building’s total cost. The stronger building in Tuesday’s test cost about $63,000 to construct – about $3,100 more than the common building.

Phillip Love, CEO of South Carolina Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Company, attended the demonstration on Tuesday.

“This is the type of thing that can help control the cost of insurance as well as the disruption to peoples lives,” he said.

He said the increase in worldwide natural disasters in recent years has translated into higher costs for both insurance companies and policyholders. Using stronger building practices can help keep costs low by reducing property damage, Love said.

In 2011, the insurance industry reported $32.3 billion in U.S. catastrophes losses, according to data from the Insurance Information Institute. More than $3 billion in losses have been reported this year.

Rochman said the benefits of building stronger buildings go beyond monetary. She said about 25 percent of all small businesses that close because of damage from natural disasters never reopen.

“Its important for people to understand that a community is not just homes, it’s the businesses too. Both need to be built stronger,” she said. “If homes survive and businesses don’t, there’s nobody to live there anymore.”