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Standing up to Hurricane Irma

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Standing up to Hurricane Irma


Star Building Systems | October 18, 2017

Following the devastating impact of Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean and in Florida, we at Star Buildings were concerned about the welfare of our builders and our customers.  We reached out through our network, and fortunately, the reports we’ve gotten back so far are positive.  Many of our buildings survived the storm with little or no damage.  Star metal building systems have once again demonstrated their durability in extreme weather events.

On the island of Grand Turks, a building was being built for Fortis TCI (the island electric company) on a promontory overlooking the ocean. Construction was near completion, but it was highly exposed when Irma struck as a Category 5 hurricane with winds in excess of 180 MPH.  Although the storm caused significant destruction on the island – some 60% of homes have been damaged, including many roofs ripped off – this metal building suffered only minor damage.  A gutter was lost on one side, and four roof panels were damaged by wind-driven impacts.  An indication of the force of the storm, a new roll-up door, wind- and impact-rated to the stringent Miami/Dade County building code, came through the ordeal with a noticeable bow inwards, but it held and operated.  (Nonetheless, it is being replaced by the builder.) 

Another building under construction was a gymnasium for St. Mary’s High School in Key West.  Only the primary and secondary framing was up, a steel skeleton with no wall or roof sheathing.  Irma came ashore with such violence that paint was “sandblasted” off the some of the steel.  However, there was no other damage to the structure.

A recently completed Monroe County Public Works Department building in the city of Marathon in the Florida Keys appears to have little or no damage, based on information from NOAA aerial photographs.  A gutter on one side may be missing.

In Naples, FL, the airport weather station recorded sustained winds of 140 MPH.  Nonetheless, the Charles C. Huff warehouse two blocks away sustained only the most minimal damage.  The building, completed 6 months earlier, is a tall structure with a 40-foot eave height.  The roof is made of Metlspan 4” CFR Insulated Metal Panels, and the walls are 4” Striated Insulated Metal Panels.  It was so sturdy that the owner used it as a storm shelter for himself, his family, and all his employees and their families.  Despite the violence of the storm, the only damage consisted of one lost gutter and a small roof leak.

The contractor who built the main power plant on the island of Monserrat reports that the building survived with no damage whatever.

Larry Wechsler, a Star builder who operates in South Florida and the Caribbean, saw damage first hand on the Turks and Caicos islands of Providenciales and Grand Turk.  His primary observation is that, “The newer building codes work.  Older buildings fared much worse and had much more damage.  The next time a contractor friend of mine complains about building departments or the permit process, I’m going to tell them (politely) to shut up.  While the permitting process can be ponderous, I’ve seen enough evidence in the aftermath of hurricanes to know that it works.  Designing and building to the code is the best insurance against damage from high velocity wind events.”

He also noted that most metal buildings he saw – regardless of manufacturer – had lost gutters or downspouts to the wind.  He attributes this to a pattern of fastening every 36 inches, which is fine for normal wind conditions, but he believes it is not up to the demands of hurricane country.  Wechsler has decided that, on all post-Irma repairs to their buildings, they will fasten the gutters to every rib. 

Wechsler saw some damaged metal buildings, and observed that many of them were damaged because of corroded screws or corroded purlins.  Maintaining the watertight integrity of a building is vital, for any type of construction including metal building systems.  Water can have a devastating impact on most types of structural systems.  In the case of metal buildings, water-caused corrosion weakens fasteners and structural members, which can fail when stressed, such as in a major storm.

Wechsler’s report also suggests the importance of checking the integrity of a metal building after a major wind impact event such as a hurricane.  Pounding of the wind may compromise waterproof joints and seals, or subtly enlarge screw holes, allowing water infiltration in the future.  If a building survives one hurricane, it’s wise to make sure its water-tightness was not compromised, so it will still be structurally sound when the next hurricane hits.

Reports so far, during this unprecedented hurricane season, appear to confirm observations made in other natural disasters: a well-maintained Star metal building system can perform well in extreme wind-loading events.  This season has already seen storms of unprecedented size and record-setting impact, and it is possible that wind-codes will be strengthened as a result.  We are grateful that our buildings proved durable in this extreme test, but we are also learning from the results and will continue trying to improve our buildings even further.  

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