Siting in the Hurricane Zone: a Green Building Challenge

Thanks to an insightful question from Faith, a regular reader, we realized that TreeHuggers need information on sustainable construction methods for hurricane prone zones. It really is a critical question, with literally thousands of families still living in borrowed house trailers as a consequence of the 2004 hurricane season, many of them perhaps wondering what kind of home they could afford that will withstand this season's and future storms. What irony, too, that we TreeHuggers anguish over recycling household waste when the damage from just one Gulf Coast hurricane put millions of tons of building debris into southeastern landfills: entire communities worth of houses and their contents buried in one season. Faith wondered if earth sheltered homes would be a good solution? We wondered about the larger question of how sustainable Green Building in general is in the hurricanes zone? We're onto it and will get some posts up after a bit of research. Suggestions on good reference sites and case studies would be appreciated. In the meantime, we have more on how critical the issue is and how our readers will be affected.Recent study suggests that while the jurry is still out as to whether climate change has any impact on hurricane frequency...looks for now like it has not changed the frequency over past eras...there is evidence that hurricane intensity and duration have been increased in the last few decades when compared to the historical record.

Most building codes in 'the zone' now require new construction to be strengthened to resist hurricane force winds. But that's a one-off approach to sustainability. The potential for the Law of Unintended Consquences to come into play is high in any one-off change. For example, do costs of the new building codes tend to exclude low income people from the best shore properties? Do the new designs require owners to consume more energy intensive building materials? What about the impact on long term energy consumption? Think about it for a while and many more difficult and unanswered questions emerge with landscaping, stormwater management, and daylighting.

Some future drivers are gaining certainty, however. Congress just approved a massive highway spending bill that is sure to upgrade the storm damaged bridges, roads, and ditches for years to come. And there's a surprise answer in the mix. If TreeHugger gave an award for best "out-of-the-box" thinking about housing, sustainabilty, and hurricanes, a research team at the University of Oklahoma would surely be nominated.

The following was excerpted from a recent EarthWatch Radio broadcast transcript:

The High Cost of 'Safe' Hurricanes, by Laura Kalinowski

"Hurricanes are less of a threat to life and limb in the United States thanks to improvements in weather forecasting technology. Today weather experts can make accurate predictions that give people time to prepare for hurricanes or get away from them. But the economic impact of hurricanes keeps going up. A recent report suggests there's a connection
between the reduction in fatalities and the increase in property damage".

"Daniel Sutter and a colleague at the University of Oklahoma study the the relationship between weather and the economy. He says accurate warnings for hurricanes have reduced the number of injuries and fatalities they inflict. Sutter says that has encouraged people to feel it's safe to live along the Atlantic Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. He says it stands to reason that if more people move to these areas, they'll put more and more property at risk of weather-related damage..."

So to review what we've learned: improved weather forcasting saves lives but dramatically increases the solid waste generation rate in states with hurricane vulnerable coastal areas.