Understanding the economics of tornadoesby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
Hugo's mayor said the storm damaged community has turned a corner now that many people can get back into their homes. Workers continued to restore power and gas connections today, while state building inspectors checked out structures damaged by Sunday's tornado.
Experts say it shouldn't necessarily be a surprise that the damage was so extensive in a relatively new neighborhood like Hugo's Creekwood Preserve. Homes built today are more vulnerable to bad weather now than they were generations ago.
St. Paul, Minn. — Consider the nail gun.
It's an easy-to-use marvel of modern industry that has helped to slash the time it takes to build a modern house.
And since time is money, the nail gun and other modern building techniques make homes cheaper, too. The mortgage money home buyers used to spend on hammer-handling carpenters now goes to things like granite countertops and other amenities.
But there's a down side to that trade off, as well.
"What's the difference between a nail gun and just a hammer," asked Kevin Simmons, chair of the economics department at Austin College, north of Dallas.
Living in what is known as tornado alley, Simmons does research on the economics of weather disasters.
Simmons said, for instance, that if you're using a hammer to nail down a four by eight foot sheet of roof sheathing and your nail misses the truss below, you know it.
"If you're using a nail gun, you have no idea. And some of these engineers have gone in and looked at those four by eight pieces of plywood and found that about 80 percent of the nails didn't go anywhere but into air," Smith said. "That's one of the things that technology has contributed to making it more efficient to build a house. But it also increases the probability that the home was not built as intended."
No one knows if that happened in Hugo.
And they may never find out.
For families who lost their homes, getting the mess cleaned up is a higher priority than second-guessing the way their homes were built.
But it may not really matter, either.
Because the same construction technology that made those homes affordable, spacious and vulnerable means that the $300,000 insurance check that Dan and Tina Roser got on Tuesday will stretch further when they rebuild.
High winds all but leveled their home on 159th Street.
But Dan Roser said they've already called the guy that built it the first time, hoping he'll just knock down what's left and then start all over again.
"We loved the house. It was kind of our dream house. I think we'll go with the same model and everything and just kind of do some different things inside," Roser said.
It's a simple truth of tornado economics.
They're rare events. People would rather make payments on something nice to live in, and insure it well, than to brace themselves for the odd vagaries of nature.
No one wants to raise their kids in a storm shelter or pay 20 or even 50 percent more for a house they're likely never to need.
Paul Zilio, a structural engineer in the Miami area whose firm helped rebuild after Hurricane Andrew, said the American Society of Civil Engineers sets a standard for wind resistance in building codes across the country. Zilio said there's very little incentive to build more than the code requires.
"Put yourself in the shoes of a developer, would you tell the engineer to design for a higher wind speed than code, bearing in mind that that's just costing you money, and you have no way of recouping the money," Zilio asked.
All the better reason to heed those tornado warnings say engineers.
- All Things Considered, 05/27/2008, 5:20 p.m.