Hurricane Shutters and Fire

By Jack Williams ©2015

Jim Minardi with tree he saw flying debris cut in half. Photo by Jack Williams

Protecting windows and other openings is vital to making a house more likely to survive strong winds. I go into some detail explaining why in Chapter 3 of my AMS Weather Book: The Ultimate Guide to America’s Weather.

The chapter opens with the story of Jim Minardi watching from a neighbor’s home as Hurricane Charley destroyed his house in Punt Gorda, Florida. During the storm he saw a piece of flying debris slice through the tree in the photo. Imagine what such debris does when it hits an unprotected window.

With hurricane season here, news outlets along the U.S. Coast from Brownsville, Texas, to Portland, Maine, are running stories on how to get ready now to protect homes from hurricane winds.  Such stories usually make the point that protecting windows and doors from wind is the key to ensuring  you will still be able to live in your house after a hurricane.

Hurricane shutters or impact-resistant windows are the recommended methods and can offer benefits even if a hurricane never comes within 500 miles.  Several states now require insurance companies to offer discounts for “hurricane mitigation additions,” as the New York Times pointed out in a 2007 story on Strategies for Insuring a Vacation Home.

While protecting your home from the wind with shutters offers many benefits, such protection has a potential downside, says John D. Smith,  the inventor of an alternative protection system he calls Storm Stoppers: The Plywood Alternative. He’s also the president of the company that manufacturers the system.

A couple of weeks ago, he directed my attention to news stories about people who were trapped in their burning homes by storm shutters. In some cases they had been using candles for light because the power was out. Until he pointed this out to me, I had never  heard of this danger in all of my years of writing about hurricanes. I’m sure other editors and news directors have never thought of it.

While I can’t vouch for Smith’s system or any other particular kind of window protection, the fire danger is a point that I think is worth a television, Web, newspaper, or magazine story.

One starting point for such a story would be Temporary Hurricane Shutters and Firefighting Operations by Leigh Hollins on the Web site.  This piece focuses on what firefighters might encounter and notes that by the time they open up shutters or some other system, it might be too late.

The Broward County, Florida, Sheriff’s Office advises on its Hurricane Guide Web site to remove the plywood or shutters from at least one window in every room of the house as soon as the hurricane’s winds die down.

I’ll add one bit of advice for those who aren’t familiar with hurricanes: make sure you are not in the hurricane’s eye. Winds can quickly die down to almost zero in the eye, but then roar back as strong as, or even stronger then the winds were before the eye arrived.

Anyway, I suspect a story on hurricane shutters or plywood to protect windows and the danger of a post-storm fire would be news to almost all viewers or readers, and it could trigger a lot of discussion.  Who knows, maybe local firefighers would be willing to set up a drill of breaking through plywood that a television or Web producer could film.

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