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Beach Town's Officials Crusade for Weather-Resistant Houses

Safety: Fearful of hurricane damage in North Carolina's Outer Banks, they are building Blue Sky project's first training center.

September 15, 1996|CAROLINE E. MAYER | WASHINGTON POST

SOUTHERN SHORES, N.C. — "Just look at these monsters," said Southern Shores Town Manager Cay Cross, pointing to dozens of new three-story $300,000-and-up homes on the Outer Banks.

To many vacationers, these homes represent the ultimate in beach houses, standing less than half a mile from the ocean. With as many as eight bedrooms and half a dozen bathrooms, the houses feature many windows, cathedral ceilings, large overhangs and gabled roofs.

To Cross, however, this "sea of houses" is a disaster waiting to happen.

"The way these houses are built is scary as all get out," she said. The houses, constructed by a number of local builders, meet building codes, but the codes aren't stringent enough to stand up to big storms.

"Just look at those large overhangs; they're like Frisbees," Cross said. "When the wind blows, they'll want to fly. There are so many windows, there's not enough structural integrity left to hold up a wall. You can push against the house and the walls will move.

"Do you see any shutters? If there are any, they're just for decoration," she said, adding that they're certainly not large enough or strong enough to protect the windows in high winds.

Cross said she wasn't singling out any particular housing development. "There are houses like these all along the coast from New Jersey to Texas," she said.

Such houses have prompted Cross and other officials of this small Outer Banks town, with a year-round population of 1,600, to spearhead a national campaign to build stronger houses--"hurricane-resistant" houses that could withstand winds of 110 mph.

"We don't say hurricane-proof, because there's no such thing," said Ralph D. Calfee, Southern Shores' town engineer and technical manager of the project, called Blue Sky. "It wouldn't be cost-effective to build anything that could withstand 175-mph winds."

But, he said, there are ways to build houses to withstand 110-mph winds at a little extra cost.

"Our goal is to build a house that can remain habitable after a strong wind event," Calfee said. There may be some damage, he said, but families would be able to move back in and not have their lives too disrupted. This also would help reduce the costs to local governments and relief agencies.

Cross began envisioning a project such as Blue Sky several years ago after seeing pictures of the devastation caused by Hurricanes Andrew and Hugo.

"There was a lot of cause for concern," she said, especially in her community of 3,400 homes that rests between the Atlantic Ocean and Currituck Sound. It has been 30 years since the last major hurricane hit the area, Cross said. (Hurricane Fran saved its strongest fire for barrier islands and coastal communities farther south, although its effect was felt as far north as Virginia.)

"We're painfully aware that we're really in the bull's-eye," she said. "While we think we're building well, we're probably no better off than Dade County," in Florida, which suffered billions of dollars in damage from Hurricane Andrew.

So when Cross happened to meet James Lee Witt, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in a hotel elevator at a National Hurricane Conference in 1994, she suggested a project to explore better building and inspection practices in hurricane areas. Witt told her to write a proposal. She did, and FEMA agreed to help out with federal money.

Today, Blue Sky has set aside $2.8 million--$1.2 million from FEMA and the rest from local government agencies, universities and 19 corporate sponsors, including such well-known names as Andersen Windows Corp., Home Depot Inc. and NationsBank Corp.

For Cross and Calfee, Blue Sky has no limits. They are interested not just in building better new houses, but in retrofitting existing ones--and not just to withstand hurricanes, but all sorts of natural disasters, including tornadoes, floods, fires and earthquakes.

Ultimately, Cross said, "we hope to have a training center in every state" to address local needs. The first, which is being built behind Southern Shores' town hall, is expected to be completed early this fall. It features different construction techniques--wood frame, steel frame, concrete block--and shows how each can be strengthened and improved to withstand hurricane-force winds.

Other Blue Sky projects are underway in New York and Hawaii.

"We have to change how to build to cope with nature," said Cross, who is Blue Sky's program manager. "We're not saying you have to live in a bunker or you can't live where you want to live. We're saying, build in a way so you can live where you want and in what you want."

That challenge, Cross said, will require a whole new mind-set for builders, architects and engineers. For years, their chief emphasis has been to build houses to stand up against the force of gravity. "Now they must make the house stand down" as well, to withstand strong winds.

By numbers alone, the risks are "immense, just incredible," Calfee said.

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