Hurricane Preparedness Experience- Part 1, by N.K.

S.G.’s recent observations about living through hurricane Matthew is well presented information. If I may, I’d like to contribute my experiences with hurricanes Charlie, Frances, and Jean in Central Florida during 2004.

Charlie made landfall in southwest Florida the afternoon of Friday August 13, 2004, coming ashore at Punta Gorda in Charlotte Bay as a strong category 4 with 145 mph winds. After devastating that area, it rapidly traveled diagonally across the state eventually impacting Kissimmee and Orlando in Central Florida before heading up the Atlantic coast. Orlando International Airport recorded winds of 105-110 mph, just below the 111 mph of a category 3 storm, and Sanford International Airport logged  winds of 96 mph. Amateur weather buffs in Osceola County (Kissimmee and St. Cloud)  recorded wind speeds 10-20 miles higher. Fortunately, Charlie was a fast mover so the high winds did not slowly chew up houses by lingering over any particular spot.

My neighborhood lost power at 9:15 PM Friday, and it was restored around midday on Thursday the 19th. Some areas did not have electricity restored for another two weeks; it depended on how many trees had come down and impacted power lines. Central Florida had not seen a strong hurricane since Donna in 1960, and in 44 years a lot more houses were built and trees grew. Florida has quite a few laurel and pin oaks, which are shallowly rooted, and sandy soil doesn’t provide much support. In Central and South Florida, oaks maintain full leaf display year round; as a result, in high winds they don’t lose branches but topple over intact, especially if they have not been pruned for hurricanes. When a 50-80 foot tree that weighs several tons falls intact the damage it can cause is extensive, and all of the tree must be cut up and removed to allow re-stringing of power lines.

We experienced three hurricanes striking Central Florida in 2004: Charlie on August 13, Frances on September 5 (105 mph, strong category 2), and Jean on September 26 (100 mph, a weaker category 2). Between Frances and Jean, the remnants of hurricane Ivan, which struck the Florida panhandle September 16, made a loop through Georgia into the Atlantic and crossed southern Central Florida on September 21 as a tropical storm. It was a very interesting summer in Central Florida, and many of us earned a PhD in Hurricane Prep.

Due to work requirements and Charlie’s sudden path change, as it was forecast to remain in the Gulf tracking parallel to Florida’s west coast, I was unable to put up storm panels on windows and doors, so my house had to face Charlie’s wrath “naked”. Friday evening water was being sprayed around the edges of windows, wetting everything within 8-10 feet. Unless it’s a casement or an awning window with a rubber gasket, throwing water at a house at 110 miles per hour will force some around the edges. Fortunately, that was the only water that got into the house; no hard objects struck the unprotected glass, and the garage doors held. The eye tracked within three miles, so three sides of the house got the full high wind and water treatment.

Florida used to have two building codes: coastal and inland. That changed to a single more stringent statewide code in 1995 after lessons from hurricane Andrew in 1992. Houses built to the old inland code, like mine, are still built stronger than houses in other areas that don’t face hurricanes. Post-1995 houses are stronger still. If I’m ever fortunate enough to have a house built where I’m living now, I’m going to supply the builder with a copy of the post-1995 Florida code to use as a starting point, and then I’ll add some strengthening requirements of my own.

Wind speed fell off quickly, thanks to Charlie’s rapid movement, and by midnight neighbors were outside with flashlights surveying damage. Sunrise brought a debris-filled scene, especially shingle scraps. Standard 3-tab shingles did not fare well; about 25% of my east-facing roof had the tabs ripped off the shingles, leaving only the nailed upper portion and exposing the tar paper below. About 10% more shingle tabs were removed by hurricane Frances, and another 5-10% were removed by Jean. The quick fix was a 5-gallon bucket of roof patching from a home center applied with a plastic putty knife over exposed tar paper and under the remnant of whatever shingle was left above it. We all got pretty good at doing this, because roofing companies were scheduling several months out, due to the huge demand for new roofs and shortage of hurricane-grade shingles. I didn’t get my roof replaced until the end of January 2005, five months later.

A bit about shingles, they are coated with a protective layer of sacrificial aggregate, which helps in giving shingles a particular color. As the shingle ages it loses some of that aggregate each year; when the the shingle carcass becomes fully exposed to the elements it accelerates the aging process. Florida is a tough environment for houses, especially roofs with high temperatures 10 months each year, lots of ultraviolet, torrential downpours from very heavy thunderstorms, producing high humidity, which promotes mold. There are also the hurricanes.. However long shingles last “up north”, it’s about half of that in Central and South Florida.

As the shingles shed the sacrificial aggregate they become treacherous to walk on. My first post-hurricane purchase was 140 feet of 7/16″ diameter dynamic mountain climbing rope, a strap-style mountain climbing seat, and a climber’s rope brake from an outfit that offered indoor rock wall climbing. The seat straps wrap snugly around each thigh and connect to the waist belt, which needs to be tight, plus a crotch strap; skydivers, military pilots, and former members of the 82nd and 101st Airborne would feel right at home. An option would have been an OSHA-Certified roof security harness, but the seat was $40, an OSHA harness about $150, certified straps, anchors, and rope on top of that. Two big differences between the rigs were the OSHA fall restraint fastens to the top center of the back while the seat had the attachment ring at the front waist where it’s easy to manage slack control with a rope brake. The OSHA rig is intended to allow quite a bit of free movement and prevent fatal impact with the ground. Some having automatic payout and retract reels like car seat belts; I was just as interested in limiting the amount of “shingle surfing” my hips, butt, and legs would do if I lost my footing. The rope runs through the brake in a loop; squeezing the spring-loaded handle allows rope to move through it, and releasing the handle instantly locks the rope in the brake. I secured the backyard end of the rope to the base of a 6X6 fence post concreted three feet into the ground and the other to a D-ring on the trailer hitch on my pickup truck in the driveway, leaving  enough slack to move around the roof. I never slipped or fell, but I would not have traveled more than three or four feet down the roof had I done so. I was wearing heavy denim jeans, full shoes, gloves, and the heaviest flannel shirt I owned, fully buttoned including sleeves. Temperatures were in the 90s, so shorts and a t-shirt would have been much more comfortable, but bare skin sliding even three feet on a shingle roof would not have been pleasant. Sweat washes off and requires no healing time.

Crossing the roof peak meant straddling it while reversing rope direction through the brake. A word about rope: dynamic climbing rope has about a 10% stretch factor to cushion the sudden stop should a climber fall. Regular rope doesn’t stretch that much, probably no more than 1-2%. The difference in the jerk at the end of even a 10-12 foot fall is significant, and that sudden hard jerk can easily break rope that’s worn or undersized for the task, or sometimes it can break bones.

The lesson here is be prepared for emergency roof repairs and have protective equipment to prevent injury while doing the repairs. The seat, rope, and brake was $160 well spent, and it quickly became well used among my neighbors.

Whomever installed my roof did an excellent job, standard 3-tab shingles aside. When Charlie hit, the roof was 14 years old, facing full replacement in two to four years. The underlayment was 30 pound tar paper and overlapped a full 50%. Tar paper comes in 36-inch wide rolls, in two basic weights– 15 pounds and 30 pounds per square, which is roofer’s lingo for 100 square feet. There are marked lines on tar paper to guide overlap; some installers will overlap less than 50% to save on tar paper. When my roof was replaced I specified both 30 pound paper and a 2/3 overlap, costing more, but guaranteeing every spot on the roof was covered by two layers of 30 pound paper under the shingles. I also specified very heavy architectural shingles with a 130 mph wind rating. Architectural shingles have double thickness portions to give a patterned look, making the shingle heavier and more solid. These options added about $1400 to my out-of-pocket cost, but I considered both worthwhile investments. Florida building code requires six nails per shingle; many places require only four. Regardless of where you live, it would pay to go with 30 lb tar paper and heavy architectural shingles and specify six nails per shingle. The additional cost is worth it. Incidentally, check your homeowner’s policy. Florida allows insurers to levy a wind storm deductible of up to 5% of insured value, so on a house insured for $200,000 the regular $500 or $1,000 deductible could jump as high as $10,000 the moment a storm becomes a hurricane. As a reminder, homeowner’s policies do not include flood damage; damage from wind-driven water will be covered, but insuring against damage caused by rising water from heavy rain requires a separate flood insurance policy.

Checking with roof experts, I learned that roof sheathing– usually 1/2” thick, but 5/8” is the new minimum code requirement in Florida– will hold up for about four re-roofings before needing replacement. A few thousand shingles with six nails each puts a lot of holes in the sheathing, eventually compromising its strength. If building, I would use 3/4” exterior glue roof plywood sheathing and not OSB (oriented strand board), if there was enough money in the budget. OSB is made by bonding wood chips and fragments together with a strong adhesive; it works well, size for size is comparable in strength to plywood, and is less expensive, but OSB is more susceptible to swelling at the edges and staying swollen after drying, if it gets wet, so there’s a greater possibility with storm-damaged roofs than other sheathing applications. One advantage OSB has over plywood is easier availability in larger than 4X8 ft sheets. One disadvantage is plywood has slightly better nail holding ability than OSB.