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A Common-Sense Solution to Hurricane Devastation

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In what's already been a dangerous tropical storm season, Hurricane Matthew's recent ravaging of the southeast is putting 2016's run of dangerous weather into rarified air. When it's all said and done, CoreLogic believes Matthew's path of property destruction will cost $4 million to $6 million

The disaster caps off a season that occurred five months ahead of schedule when, in January, Hurricane Alex descended upon the northeast. Tropical Storm Bonnie followed in mid-May, making this the second time in four years that two storms formed before the official start of hurricane season in June.

With the threat of Atlantic hurricanes seemingly on the rise, it's worth having a conversation about what can be done to mitigate the devastation.

Hurricane Damage Is Extreme by Definition 

Compared to any other set of metrics, the damage already caused by these 2016 disasters is severe. The storm season took a sizable economic toll on the Atlantic, resulting in $11.5 billion worth of damage. 

Those figures are troubling until you compare them to seasons past. In 2011, due in large part to the ruin left behind by Hurricane Katrina, the average amount of damage done by hurricanes reached nearly $9 billion. One projection figures that if a major storm were to hit South Florida, the cost of damage done to Miami, alone, would total $144 billion.

The size and scope of hurricanes and tropical storms means that any damage done — be it on personal or commercial grounds — is widespread and significant. When one hits land, the question isn't so much "Will it cause devastation?" but more like "How much?" 

And when it inevitably does, property owners, insurance providers, and local, state, and federal governments are left to immediately pick up — and pay for — the pieces. 

Foundation Damage Is a Primary Problem 

Hurricanes impose their will on every part of a structure, including its foundation. So it's no wonder average repair costs remain as high as they do. 

Strong winds can blow the roof off a house or break out every window; debris can fly through the air and crash through thick walls and lead to costly removal, and heavy rains and flooding can cause water damage above and below the first story of a building. 

Though they're costly and inconvenient, these types of setbacks are reparable. Mending a building's structure is an extensive process and doesn't require the complete rebuild some may think it does if proper precautions are taken. 

The most expensive repairs, however, come when storms crack a building's foundation. Because this is literally the base of the structure, problems spread upward and outward to affect every part of the home. And when the damage is severe enough, there may be no home left at all.

Sustained 100-mile-per-hour-plus winds put a tremendous amount of lateral force on a structure and lead to fissures in the foundation. Flooding and standing water after a storm can degrade foundation materials and compromise their structural integrity moving forward. 

The greatest source of destruction, however, is a result of scour. The wind and flowing waters accelerate as they pass around a structure, which eventually loosens the topsoil and washes it away. As a result, parts of the foundation that are dependent on the protection of the soil and the structural strength that the weight of that soil provides are now exposed to the elements. 

Once the foundation is exposed, the basic protections the home relies on vanish. It is possible for shallow foundations to collapse entirely, but deeper foundations can settle significantly or shift laterally because they are exposed to greater wind or water pressure. Even if the structure remains standing, the only solution to foundation problems is often complete demolition. 

Helical Piles Are Effective Safeguards 

An effective way to mitigate the severity of hurricane damage is to install helical piles on new or existing structures. They look similar to a long pole with rounded or helical platforms incorporated into the design at regular intervals. The piles are screwed into the ground and attached to the foundation of the structure. 

This is not a new technology. In fact, helical piles have been used in England for more than 200 years as a staple of lighthouse construction. Though designs and materials have improved significantly since then, the principles behind helical piles remain the same.

Structures with helical piles in place transfer the weight of the structure off of the foundation and onto the piles. Because these piles extend farther into the ground than the foundation itself, they are largely immune to the effects of scour. They also provide superior lateral capacity to insulate the foundation from gale force winds and surging waters. 

The benefits of helical piles extend beyond structural integrity. They can be used as an alternative to traditional elevation methods, eliminating the need to move a structure to improve its storm protections. The method of installation also creates a low level of site disturbance, making it simpler to integrate helical piles with other foundation systems. Once the piles are in place, it is easier for homeowners to get storm insurance and expedite a claim. 

Anyone located on the Atlantic coast, particularly in FEMA coastal A and V zones, should consider integrating helical piles into new or existing construction. Regulators should also consider mandating the use of helical piles in storm prone areas. A minor cost now can spare a major cost next hurricane season.