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Experts: Trees Shelter Homes From Wind During Big Storms

December 5, 2008

By Jerry W. Jackson, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla.-- Big trees around homes help buffer the structures against the vicious winds of hurricanes and tropical storms, one of the nation's leading engineers said Thursday on the final day of a national hurricane conference.

Sturdy trees can reduce the "wind load" on adjacent buildings by as much as 40 percent, which can mean the difference between massive structural damage during a storm and little or no damage, said Peter Vickery, principal engineer with Applied Research Associates of North Carolina.

"Overall, the reduction [in wind load] greatly outweighs the risk of trees falling on the house," Vickery said as he addressed the Hurricane Science for Safety Leadership Forum, which ended a two-day conference in the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel conference center.

Vickery said lab tests and field experience show that buildings surrounded by trees or by other buildings suffer less wind damage overall. Vickery and other industry experts at the event emphasized that more "mitigation" can be done to protect homes -- often by homeowners on their own, as well as by professional builders and developers.

Warner Chang, a project engineer with the Institute for Business and Home Safety, a forum sponsor, said new homes constructed to higher standards set by the nonprofit institute withstand natural disasters better because they use easily obtainable design elements, products and materials that don't add much to a home's final cost, such as impact-resistant windows.

"You can throw a coconut at the window at 90 miles per hour and it won't go through it," he said. The problem is, manufacturers can make claims about their products, but consumers may not always get the protection they deserve or expect, Chang said.

That's one reason the institute, which is financed by the insurance industry, is planning to open its own "lab for high-quality research," to check the validity of product claims and to perform more studies beneficial to homeowners and policymakers, said Julie Rochman, the institute's president and chief executive officer. She said the lab would be supported by the insurance and re-insurance industries, to avoid competing for limited funds going to university research.

But Rochman and other industry specialists said property owners and builders should not wait for more test results before making improvements to, and "hardening," their homes with easily available techniques and products, many of them off-the-shelf materials that "weekend warriors" can install.

The institute's Web site, disastersasfety.org, has information and instructional videos for homeowners who want to brace their roofs or add shutters, for example. It also has a ZIP-code search function that allows people in any part of the country to get information about natural disasters that their area might face, from wildfires and earthquakes to hurricanes.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla., Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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