Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Few reinforce their houses

 • Disaster preparedness — Are we ready?
A six-part special report examines how well Hawai'i
is prepared for a hurricane and other natural disasters.
 •  Big Isle system well-tested but seeks upgrades

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Staff Writer

Gumi Staton and her husband had hurricane tie-downs installed on posts and beams around their home as one method of reinforcement.

DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser



  • Have hurricane clips and straps installed on your home.

  • Prepare and store precut pieces of plywood that can quickly be bolted into place over your windows.

  • Establish a "safe room."

  • spacer

    The Ocean Pointe housing development in 'Ewa Beach is among homes being built under more stringent building codes that were enacted in the early 1990s. Officials said most older homes have not been retrofitted with hurricane-protection measures.

    BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser


    Gumi Staton feels more secure now that her Waimanalo home is hurricane-ready. She and her husband had the roof strengthened and had customized window coverings installed.

    DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser


    If a storm like Hurricane Iniki ever hits O'ahu, about 38 percent of the island's homes 59,000 structures would likely be destroyed or heavily damaged. That means more than 100,000 people could be homeless, at least temporarily.

    And if a Category 4 storm like Hurricane Katrina ever makes direct landfall here, well nobody is even willing to estimate how much the island's building stock would suffer.

    Even so, few homeowners have taken advantage of relatively low-cost improvements that could dramatically increase their chances of surviving a storm, officials say.

    "You can give them all the knowledge you have, but unless they are required to do it, most people don't want to spend the time or money it takes to make their homes safer in a hurricane," said Tom Papandrew, chairman emeritus at Honolulu's Belt Collins planning firm and an international adviser on disaster planning.

    In the wake of Iniki, which caused millions of dollars in damage when it hit Kaua'i in 1992 with sustained winds of 130 mph, local, state and federal officials made extensive studies of damaged individual homes and now know far more about what it takes to protect Island residences from damaging winds.

    That led to changes in local building codes that ensure new or rebuilt homes can better withstand the onslaught of a similar-sized storm. No one knows, though, if those homes could stand up to a storm like Katrina, which had sustained winds of 145 mph.

    Tens of thousands of older homes, the majority of the state's single-family housing stock, were built before the protections were required and have not been retrofitted with systems that could help, even though most could be fixed for as little as $1,500, architects and other officials say.

    "A lot of people promise to do it later, but later never comes," said Palmer Hafdahl, an architect who was extensively involved in Iniki rebuilding efforts on Kaua'i and now heads Palm's Hawaii Architecture in Lihu'e.

    On Kaua'i, owners whose homes were destroyed or damaged in Iniki 14,000 single-family residences in all were required to rebuild with new, tougher building codes that strengthened wind resistance. Because of that, only about 15 percent of the homes there now would likely not stand up to a hurricane with Iniki-like winds, Hafdahl estimated.


    On O'ahu, an estimated 18 percent of the homes have been built under more stringent building codes enacted in the early 1990s. Most of the other homes, especially in older neighborhoods between Kalihi and Kaimuki and on the Leeward coast, have not been retrofitted with hurricane protection measures, officials said.

    The most at-risk homes, those with single-wall construction, account for an estimated 55 percent of O'ahu's 155,000 single-family dwellings. Of those, well under 10 percent have the type of high-wind strap-down system that could dramatically increase their chances of survival in a storm, Civil Defense officials estimate. One study indicates that putting in such a system increases the chances of surviving an Iniki-like storm by almost 75 percent.

    So why don't more people do it?

    "We've become completely and totally subject to disaster amnesia," said Gerry Peters, a contractor who spent 10 years trying to specialize in disaster preparedness only to see two different companies fail for lack of homeowner interest. "Even when hurricanes approach and people talk a lot about it, few actually do what they should."


    The single biggest step owners can take is retrofitting their homes with a "continuous load transfer path" that uses hurricane clips and straps to tie all parts of the building together, from roof to foundation, officials said. Materials for such a project cost less than $1,000. Contractors typically charge between $1,200 and $1,500 to install the system in a single-story home.

    Gumi Staton, co-owner of Quality Turfgrass in Waimanalo, said that several years ago, after Iniki hit, she and her husband worked on getting their Waimanalo home hurricane-ready.

    They strengthened the roof and customized window coverings that can be attached to the outside of each window. They also have a generator in case the power goes out.

    "We don't want to wait until right before the hurricane comes to do these things," Staton said. "We don't want to lose our home. If I want to stay in my home, I need a roof. We are all ready."


    But most people are more like Val Mori of 'Aina Haina.

    Mori said that her home is about 50 years old, and while some renovations have been done over the years, none was geared toward making the home withstand a hurricane.

    "We should do it and we've talked about it, but we just haven't done it," Mori said. "It's not like we don't know the danger."

    But, she said, "hurricane clips are something we will consider."

    State lawmakers this year passed a bill (SB690) over Gov. Linda Lingle's veto that includes a 35 percent cash grant to help homeowners pay for repairs that would hurricane-harden an existing home, including investment in residential safe rooms, hurricane clips, window and door protective storm panels, better anchoring, or a higher wind-resistant level of roofing and reroofing. Lingle has not yet released money for the program, Peters said.


    One of the most important steps, officials said, involves preparing and storing precut pieces of plywood that can quickly be bolted into place over existing windows when a storm approaches, something that only about 1 percent of all homeowners have done here.

    "Window and door damages contributed substantially to increased levels of water damage as well as to a greater potential for structural damage through internal pressurization," a federal study of Iniki home damage concluded. "In most homes surveyed, it was apparent that little regard was given to proper window protection. A simple but effectively applied plywood covering would have provided the needed protection in most cases."

    With each passing storm, either here or on the Mainland, though, awareness and inquiries about hurricane preparedness increase, said Rob Hale, president of the American Institute of Architects' Hawai'i state council.


    Increasingly, some homeowners are inquiring about small "safe rooms" a small, windowless structure within your home or on your property designed to keep you safe even if your house blows away, Hale said. The shelters can be as elaborate as a new concrete structure within a home or as simple as a small windowless area, such as a bathroom reinforced with mattresses, where homeowners can wait out a storm, officials said.

    The law passed this year calls for the state Defense Department to develop by Jan. 1 standard public shelter and residential safe room design criteria capable of withstanding a 500-year hurricane event in Hawai'i.

    Even with the recommended precautions, though, variables such as the home's design, age, location, building materials and quality of construction all can help determine which home is damaged and which isn't. On Kaua'i, newer concrete homes sometimes sustained severe damage while older plantation homes nearby with single-wall construction and a corrugated metal roof escaped untouched. New building codes in the future likely will include stronger standards for homes in the most vulnerable areas, such as ridge lines or wind-swept valleys.


    Residents of high-rise condominiums probably would fare better in a big storm because they're generally built to a higher construction standard. Even so, most owners should take the precaution of sheltering their windows and lanai, where winds are most likely to intrude, Hale said.

    Bob Ackerson, a Hawai'i Kai resident, said his condominium complex recently tied down all the roof trusses as a way to lower insurance costs and to make the complex sturdier in the event of a hurricane.

    "We were concerned about it for many years," Ackerson said. "It's not that it makes the buildings any safer, but it does mean we'll have less damage in the event of a hurricane."

    Ultimately, even the toughest of preventive measures won't guarantee protection in the worst of hurricanes. "Nobody can make an agreement with God that a hurricane won't be twice the speed you've designed for," Hafdahl said.

    Staff writer Suzanne Roig contributed to this report.

    Reach Mike Leidemann at mleidemann@honoluluadvertiser.com.

    • • •