By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun
6:24 PM EST, February 21, 2013
Jill Sorensen's basement flooded after a winter storm knocked out her power, then again in 2011 during Hurricane Irene.
What stopped another encore performance during last year's derecho? She'd installed a sump pump that uses her home's water pressure to kick in when the power conks out. Knock on wood, she hasn't had a flood since. That purchase — about $800 — is one of several moves she's made to prepare her home for bad weather.
"We've taken the inevitability of storms more seriously," said Sorensen, who lives in North Baltimore.
So have an increasing number of Americans, after the last few years of hurricanes, tornadoes and other damaging weather events cutting a wide swath across the country.
Weather disasters causing at least $1 billion in damages hit the United States nearly 30 times in the last three years, more than in the entire decade of the 1980s and at a much faster pace than in the following two decades, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The agency adjusted costs for inflation to compare apples to apples.
With bad weather has come more extended power outages — among other problems. Companies that sell generators and backup sump pumps say they've seen sales soar. Some in the construction industry, meanwhile, are hoping that concerns about storm severity will eventually revolutionize homebuilding.
"Without politicizing the conversation, moving forward, I think most people accept that the environment is changing," said Joseph Rogge, marketing director for ForeverHome, a new joint venture selling all-concrete homes. "Storms like we just saw with Hurricane Sandy are not typical, and these cycles are getting more and more frequent. It's going to force people to think of different ways to build their homes. I think that the paradigm has to shift."
ForeverHome, based in Wisconsin, intends to manufacture homes from precast concrete and work with builders to erect them. The company's prototype is in Florida, hurricane central, but it's trying to get into all coastal markets. Two builders are interested in working with the company in Maryland and elsewhere on the East Coast, Rogge said.
A 1,200-square-foot home would go for about $170,000, not including land, he said. The models can hold up against a 200-mile-per-hour wind burst, would be much less expensive to insure and cost about 70 percent less to heat and cool, Rogge said. And they don't look like the grim fortresses that the word "concrete" might bring to mind, he added.
The Maryland Ready Mix Concrete Association is (not surprisingly) all in favor of more concrete in homes. But Tom Evans, executive director of the group, says the idea has yet to truly catch on — probably thanks to un-homey connotations and because people assume concrete would cost more than wood.
He estimated that between 40 and 50 homes are built in Maryland each year with "insulated concrete wall systems" aboveground.
Maryland has had its share of weather woes, with Sandy in October, the intense derecho windstorm in June, Hurricane Irene in 2011 and the back-to-back massive snowstorms in 2010, to name a few.
But communities hit harder by storms are more active in the push to build and rebuild with materials that wind and water can't so easily damage. Take Greensburg, a Kansas town that was almost completely leveled by a 2007 tornado.
Daniel Wallach, executive director of Greensburg GreenTown, said half of the 300 homes rebuilt in town were erected to be more storm-resilient, more energy-efficient or both. Greensburg has a demonstration home made of concrete and another under way using a "wood block" system that's stronger than traditional building methods because the wood interlocks like Legos, he said.
He doesn't think anyone in the country should count themselves safe from storms.
"Basically, any environment at this point is subject to more intense weather than in the past," he said. "You adapt or you die. That's just kind of a rule of nature."
The common adaptations locally are generators and backup sump pumps. Paul M. Burke, plumbing manager at Ambassador Services, a mechanical contracting company in Owings Mills, said his company's generator installations rose 14 percent last year. Backup sump-pump installations? Up 20 percent.
"The storms are doing it for us," Burke said.
Arnold Friedlander, owner of Winn Electric Contracting in Timonium, said his company is giving generator estimates almost every day and installing several a week. The derecho plus Sandy "made a lot more people decide to do something," he said.
Kohler Power Systems, which makes "standby" generators to be permanently installed, says it had record sales last year. Generac Power Systems, which has the lion's share of the generator market, said its revenue doubled between 2010 and 2012.
"Certainly in the wake of the storms that you folks have had in the Northeast over the past year, we've seen a great surge in interest for backup power systems of all kinds," said Art Aiello, a spokesman for the Wisconsin-based Generac.
Generac makes portable and permanently installed generators. Its portables generally sell for under $1,500, while the most popular of its standby brands — which automatically switch on when the power goes off — retails for about $4,600.
Stuart Merenbloom, a retired teacher who lives in Catonsville, said he can attest to the wild demand for portable generators after Sandy hit.
"Even a month after the storm — even online, like places in the Midwest — they were out," he said.
Merenbloom is seriously thinking about buying one, given that the derecho and Sandy each cut power to his home for four days, but he has reservations. The thought of storing gas in the shed to power a portable generator worries his wife. He looked into getting a standby generator instead, but a contractor told him the backyards in his neighborhood of rowhouses aren't big enough.
Merenbloom's not planning to move, so his storm-prep options strike him as fairly limited.
"You can only do so much," he said.
And you don't want your preparations to backfire, either. Ed McDonough, spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, said portable-generator owners must be very careful to avoid carbon-monoxide poisoning by running them outside the home — and away from areas where the fumes could get back in.
"Sometimes people think a garage is OK, and it's not," he said. "And sometimes people think a porch is OK, and it's not."
McDonough also suggests that homeowners consider their yard if they want to be more storm-conscious. Falling trees and tree limbs are a major cause of power outages during storms, and they can pose a hazard to homes, too.
Then there are the backup sump pumps, battery- or water-powered. Laurel Peltier, a North Baltimore resident, had the latter installed after it occurred to her during a big storm that she'd be waterlogged if the electricity went out.
She encouraged Sorensen, her friend and neighbor, to follow suit. She figures most people don't think of a backup until the water's gushing in.
"Your power goes off a lot more now, and it's not for a couple hours, it's for a few days," Peltier said. "You just have to think differently."
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