Battle With The Sea: Minimizing Wind Damage From Storms

Feb 19, 2016

The Hurricane of 1938 toppled some 275 million trees across New England. Today – with more trees and more buildings  – state officials see wind damage as a statewide threat because of climate change and the potential for more frequent, extreme weather events. In the next installment of our series Battle With the Sea, we look at how some homeowners are preparing to withstand winds with the force of a hurricane. 

One early morning last August, many Rhode Islanders woke up to a fast-moving thunderstorm and heavy rain. It was the wind that startled South Kingstown resident Pam Rubinoff as she lay in bed.

“And then all of a sudden I heard this huge thump,” said Rubinoff, who hurried downstairs to find water pouring into her dining room from the attic. “And I went outside to see that there had been two huge trees that had fallen on the house.”

A tree specialist later told her the two oak trees together weighed about 7,000 pounds, more than enough to tear a whole in the roof. 

The storm that took down these trees is what meteorologists call a microburst, defined by the wind damage it causes along a straight line. And damage it did with wind gusts ranging from 60 to more than 80 miles per hour. Cranston, Warwick and Charlestown were the hardest hit.

Two large oak trees fell on Pam Rubinoff's house in South Kingstown during last summer's microburst.
Credit Photo Courtesy of Pam Rubinoff

But this type of wind damage may become a statewide problem in the years ahead. Coastal Resources Management Council Executive Director Grover Fugate said extreme weather events are expected to worsen as one effect of climate change.

“…So we will see [more storms]—and I think the microburst that we saw in Warwick and Cranston is just an example,” said Fugate. “So if you were to multiply that by three and go statewide with it, you can start to get an idea of what the picture looks like.”

Fugate learned Warwick spent nearly a month cleaning up damage from the microburst that uprooted many trees across its neighborhoods.

“You can imagine if that was statewide what the cleanup event is going to be – it’s going to be major,” he said.

One way Fugate's agency and other state partners are preparing for more of these extreme weather events is by making the state’s building code more rigorous to protect against three major threats: storm surge, waves and wind.

They’ve had their eye on a disaster-certified building standard called FORTIFIED. Since Hurricane Katrina, this building code has been gaining traction in states along the Gulf of Mexico, Florida, and the Carolinas. Fugate approached a local building company, to gauge interest in building FORTIFIED homes in Rhode Island.

David Caldwell is the president of Caldwell & Johnson, the first company in Rhode Island to build such a house. Caldwell said it was a simple upgrade from the other green and sustainable standards he uses. Most of the cost is in the windows, which he jokingly calls bullet-proof.

Rhode Island is the first state in New England where builders, state officials, and a small number of homeowners are embracing a disaster-resistant building code known as FORTIFIED. A local building company recently finished constructing the first certified FORTIFIED home in Matunuck.
Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

“That’s pretty rugged,” said Caldwell after knocking on one of the windows of the first FORTIFIED house he’s built. “You’re safe in there. You can watch a storm go by and if a projectile hits the window, you’ll be safe.” 

The windows and roof of a fortified home can sustain winds of more than 130 miles per hour. Inspector Jeff Rhodin visited the house built by Caldwell's company a few times during construction. Rhodin runs Lexington-based Sustainable Energy Analytics, the company verifying that the house is being built to the FORTIFIED standard.

Builders have to connect the roof securely to the rest of the house, which has to be securely connected to the foundation, with hurricane clips and special nails. They use a rubber barrier and an airtight adhesive under the shingles to keep water out and keep roof layers as one piece, explained Rhodin.

“That’s very important because in high wind situations, what typically happens is that when the roof fails, it starts in one spot and then it breaks apart,” described Rhodin. “And if it’s all one piece, it doesn’t do that.”

After the microburst damaged her roof, South Kingstown resident Pam Rubinoff rebuilt it with the FORTIFIED standard and got a small discount on her premium from the insurance company. In fact, the insurance industry created the FORTIFIED program as a response to catastrophic storms.

State officials are hoping they’ll continue to support the building program by giving people who build or retrofit with these disaster-resistant standards a break on their insurance.

As for Rubinoff, she’s not your average resident. She’s a senior coastal manager at the University of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Center and had been working with the CRMC’s Grover Fugate, researching the FORTIFIED program. So it was already on her radar when the microburst hit. Rubinoff knows the fortified roof isn’t going to stop trees from falling on her roof.

“However the roof is now more resilient to higher winds, which we are starting to see as we saw with this 83-mile-per-hour microburst,” said Rubinoff.

The FORTIFIED program required Rubinoff to take down any tree branches hovering over her roof. Rubinoff had already started trimming trees surrounding her house to minimize the risk of storm damage. After last year's microburst, she took down an additional 17 trees.

Two more homes in Rhode Island are undergoing retrofits under the FORTIFIED program, making them the first of their kind in all of New England. Rhode Island is the first state in the region to embrace the program. State officials say they hope more homeowners will follow to reduce the risk from severe wind and rain expected to come with climate change.