Thunderstorm Twerks Texas Houses

It doesn't take a tornado to destroy a house ... depending on how the building is constructed. Several houses in the Dallas, Texas, suburb of Rockwall were ruined last week by 95-mile-an-hour straight-line winds, according to press reports and the National Weather Service (see photo, below). Forbes magazine blogger Dennis Mersereau jumped on the story (see: "This Destroyed House Proves A Severe Thunderstorm Is Just As Dangerous As A Tornado," by Dennis Mersereau). "Wednesday's storm damage in Texas should be a wake-up call that we should treat the threat of damaging winds just as seriously as a tornado," commented weather buff Mersereau. "You don't know how well your house will stand up to intense winds until they happen, and by then it's too late to run for cover if your home isn't as strong as you thought it was."

Lower-story walls in this home lacked the shear capacity to withstand straight-line winds estimated at 90 to 95 mph.
Lower-story walls in this home lacked the shear capacity to withstand straight-line winds estimated at 90 to 95 mph.

The "Texas Sky Ranger" helicopter from TV station NBC 5 in Dallas viewed the wreckage from above (see video here and still photos here). As video and photos from the scene document, the destroyed homes had wood structural-panel roof sheathing. But the building walls were sheathed with a foil-faced sheathing panels, not wood. Photos from the scene show how lower-story walls of one two-story house have racked in response to the wind pressure, and brick veneer cladding has fallen off onto the ground. Adjacent one-story houses show less obvious wall damage—but unfortunately suffered major loss of roofing and roof sheathing, and in at least one case, complete destruction of the roof framing as well.

The destroyed homes were built around 2013. A Google StreetView capture of the location, taken in 2013, shows sitework underway at the lot where the homes are sited (below). Zooming out into Google Earth view reveals a satellite image, taken more recently, with a view of the context: the destroyed buildings sat at the end of a street next to an open field, where a long "fetch" for thunderstorm winds would have allowed the wind to build up force. Homes away from the field were likely sheltered by the rough surface created by surrounding structures, and did not experience quite the same destructive wind power.

Sitework underway at the address of a home destroyed by March winds in Rockwall, Texas.
Sitework underway at the address of a home destroyed by March winds in Rockwall, Texas.
A recent Google Earth view of the homes on Panhandle Drive in Rockwall, Texas, before they were totaled by 95-mph winds. A large field to the south of the location would have provided no protection from the full force of the winds.
A recent Google Earth view of the homes on Panhandle Drive in Rockwall, Texas, before they were totaled by 95-mph winds. A large field to the south of the location would have provided no protection from the full force of the winds.

Rockwall, Texas, is only a few miles away from the Dallas suburbs of Garland and Rowlett, where a tornado on December 26, 2016, left a miles-long trail of destruction. That tornado was rated at EF-4 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, based on estimated wind speeds of almost 200 mph. But experts analyzing the storm track in the aftermath of the Garland tornado concluded that wind speeds throughout most of the storm track were much lower—in some cases, less than the 95-mph estimated straight-line wind speed of last week's destructive storm in Rockwall. As in Rockwall, however, many homes in Garland and Rowlett were not strong enough to handle even the design wind speeds specified by Texas building codes.

After investigating the Garland and Rowlett tornado path, engineers from APA - The Engineered Wood Association posted a formal "Texas Tornado Damage Assessment Report" at the website. Among the recommendations: "Continuously sheath all walls with wood structural panels including areas above and below openings, such as windows and doors."

Time For a Raise?

Are building trade workers underpaid? According to Slate commentator Daniel Gross, they must be—or there wouldn't be a construction labor shortage (see: "There’s No Such Thing as a Job Americans Won’t Do," by Daniel Gross). "People in real estate generally understand the importance of market prices and incentives," Gross observed. "And yet the market sharpies collectively are throwing up their hands over the construction labor shortage instead of homing in on the obvious solution: Pay people more—a lot more if need be."

Gross' commentary comes in response to a CNBC item by "Realty Check" columnist Diana Olick (see: "Homebuilders struggle to fill jobs 'Americans don't want'"). In Denver, Colorado, "housing industry veteran Gene Myers says he could be adding 50 percent more homes if he just had the people to build them," Olick reported. "After weathering more than one recession, not to mention the worst housing crash in history, Myers says he has never seen anything like this."

The Wall Street Journal is also on the labor-shortage story (see: "America’s Growing Labor Shortage"). But Daniel Gross argued that if money doesn't talk, the suckers won't walk. "When regional labor markets are tight," Gross wrote, "you have to send the price signal to potential workers that it will be worth their while to leave their current home or position in order to apply—that the job will pay well, that it will carry benefits, that if you get hurt or sick you’ll have good insurance, that there might be job security and prospects for training and development. That price might be closer to $100,000 than it is to $50,000. But that’s where we are in the economic cycle. And if builders prefer not to pay up to attract workers and are reluctant to try to charge more for their end products, they’ll muddle through at low volumes."

Protecting Louisiana's Coast

Can the Louisiana coastline be saved? Maybe—but it's going to take time, and cost money. "Gov. John Bel Edwards urged the Louisiana Legislature on Monday (March 27) to approve the 2017 update of the state's $50 billion, 50-year master plan for coastal restoration and hurricane protection," the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported (see: "'We are in a race against time': Louisiana governor urges $50 billion coastal plan," by Mark Schleifstein). "He also backs the $644 million annual plan that provides a budget for master plan projects."

The plan envisions huge spending on wetlands restoration and levee construction. But proposed legislation also includes money to elevate or flood-proof buildings, reported ABC TV station KATC 3 (see: "Edwards releases details on coastal protection plans"). "The concurrent resolution, which will be co-authored by Senate President John Alario and Senator Dan Morrish, contains the Flood Risk and Resilience Program that focuses on proactive investments that will provide flood proofing of more than 1,400 structures, elevation of more than 22,500 structures, and voluntary acquisition of approximately 2,400 structures in areas that are most at risk," the station reported.

Federal issues could complicate Louisiana's plans, Bloomberg BNA reported (see: "Louisiana Race to Save Coast Hits Federal Speed Bumps"). "The federal government in January designated the $1.4 billion Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion project, a key part of the plan, for streamlined permitting under the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act. On March 15, however, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it will need until at least 2022 to complete the reviews needed for permits," reported Bloomberg. "Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), who earlier called streamlining the project a 'major victory,' sent a letter to President Donald Trump, asking that the Mid-Barataria project, along with four other coastal restoration projects, be considered under the president’s Jan. 24 executive order, Expediting Environmental Reviews and Approvals for High Priority Infrastructure Projects. The executive order did not mention projects such as these that fall under the FAST Act. Federal budget cuts, meanwhile, could hinder the science, research and processes needed in decision-making on the project, Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority outreach and engagement director Anne Hawes said."


Massachusetts: Witnessing a fatal excavation accident has left a Boston-area mason with with psychological suffering, reported the Boston Herald (see: "Fatal South End trench collapse haunts worker," by Jessica Heslam). Steven Smith was repointing bricks on a nearby townhouse with the utility trench flooded, and risked his own life in an unsuccessful effort to save two workers from drowning.

Washington: Kenmore homebuilder Mark Huber (Huber's Custom Building) is getting noticed in the local press for creating and deploying simple shelters for homeless people, Seattle station KIRO 7 reported (see: "Local home builder designs portable pods for homeless encampments," by Natasha Chen). "Huber’s pods can be assembled by two people in 30 minutes," the station reports. "They can be dismantled just as fast to move the pod to a new location, as encampments often must. His pods are 56 square feet with two loft beds built in. Some space is left below the lower bed for storage. They also have a camping toilet and a wash basin." Huber has years of experience building homes for homeless families in Central America.

Virginia: A tornado touched down in Virginia Beach on Friday night (March 31), the Virginian-Pilot reported (see video here: "Tornado confirmed to have hit Virginia Beach, Chesapeake," by Ryan Murphy and Laura Michalski). Upwards of 50 homes were damaged, and 12 were condemned, a fire department official said.

Oklahoma: Beefed-up construction could protect Oklahoma homes from some tornado winds, and also reduce the cost of homeowner's insurance, state insurance commissioner John Doak argued in an editorial in the Oklahoman (see: "Oklahoma insurance commissioner: Enhanced building code protects against tornadoes," by John B. Doak). "Construction science has proven that high-wind and tornado-resistant residential construction standards exist," wrote Doak. "They're found in Florida, on the East Coast and right here as a municipal building code in Moore."

Minnesota: Permit activity is surging in the Twin Cities market, reported the Minneapolis Star-Tribune (see: "Twin Cities homebuilders having best spring in a decade," by Jim Buchta). In the strongest showing since 2006, "municipalities around the metro area issued 520 permits to build 915 houses and apartments in March, a level of activity usually seen in summer months," the paper reported.