Some older buildings could challenge top hurricane winds

Wind impact of Hurricane Laura

NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - Going into the record books as a tie to Louisiana’s strongest hurricane on record the sheer power of Laura’s 150 mph winds continues to stand out. A structural engineer shares her thoughts about what a storm like that could mean for our region and if there’s anything you can do to protect your property.

The massive wind damage from Laura is hard to imagine even looking at the images. Norma Jean Mattei is a Professional Engineer and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of New Orleans. She said the damage she witnessed was exactly as she would expect, “Not a storm surge event, not really much of a rain event from what I could see it was a wind event.” Mattei said, “Hurricane Laura, the damage that we saw, was very extensive damage to buildings, roof damage, some very significant trees snapped right in half. Just what you would expect from a storm of her wind speed.”

With a land falling sustained wind speed of 150 mile per hour winds and a recorded gust of 157 mph Laura fell just below a category 5 threshold on the Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale. Mattei said, “If your structure is in a category 5 wind a certain decent percentage of well-built structures are going to be damaged and damaged significantly.”

More surprising may be that with all the standout storms New Orleans has weathered the metro area hasn’t come close to winds that strong in recorded history.

When it comes to the strength of our buildings and codes Mattei says age makes a difference. She said, “We were basing those winds and other loads on statistics so what have we measured in the history of measuring these things which wasn’t long way back then.” With time and experience Mattei said the building codes and materials are stronger.

She said it’s often after storms that legal requirements increase, but that usually only applies to new buildings or those being remodeled to more than 50 percent of its value. She said, “If you’ve got a significant change to your building code typically what happens is all the structures that came before are grandfathered in.”

That doesn’t mean there isn’t hope for an older city. She said many structures can survive, “Our older buildings and we are an old city. Some of our buildings are 1800′s I’m not even sure that there was a wind loading. There was probably you just built a sturdy building. Lots of those structures withstand anything that gets thrown at them so far.”

But once you reach certain wind speeds it’s hard to fight nature. Mattei said the best things you can do to protect your property is pay close attention to roof maintenance and check periodically for any rot in the rafters.

When a storm approaches she said property owners should seal openings with shutters, plywood or impact resistant windows and doors.

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