Safest place in a two-story house with open floorplan: Hurricane Edition
September 7, 2017 12:20 PM   Subscribe

We're in the cone for Hurricane Irma, and there is no windowless interior room on the first floor of our house. Where should we go during impact?

I had been preparing our coat closet under the stairs, but it's in a two-story foyer with lots of windows. So, probably not there. Every other room on the first floor is connected (no walls between kitchen-den-dining room-formal living room) and with lots of lovely windows.

The 2nd floor does have a couple of windowless interior rooms, but it seems risky in case of falling trees (we're surrounded by lovely old pine and oak).

If an overnight event occurs, would we be remotely safe in a bedroom with large east-facing windows? Or should we move to a guest room with west-facing windows? Or give up on sleep altogether? I'm still traumatized from seeing trees falling straight through bedrooms during Hurricane Fran, which was also well inland by the time it got to us.

Other relevant facts:
- we're in western NC, a mountainous area
- low risk for flooding
- roof is "composition shingle" gable
- exterior walls are wood

I realize this is a bit premature because we're still 4-5 days out, but I want to get my ducks in a row and feel as safe and prepared as I can. Thank you!!
posted by witchen to Grab Bag (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
All the latest news I've read is that we (western North carolina) will get Tropical Storm Irma aka rain, wind, possible power outages. I'd focus much more on water and food provisions for power outages than hanging out in a closet because of wind.
posted by atomicstone at 1:06 PM on September 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm a lifelong Gulf Coast person, so let me give you that perspective.

Western NC is pretty darn far from the water, and these storms loose power quickly over land. Plus, you're not looking at a direct hit -- it's a glancing blow up the east coast, right?

My mother has been justifiably concerned about northbound Gulf Coast storms in Hattiesburg, MS, which is about 80 or 90 miles inland. Houses in Hattiesburg were destroyed by Camille in '69, by Fredric in '79, and by Katrina in '05.

However, she's abandoned that worry entirely since her move 90 miles further inland, to Jackson. Katrina imposed lots of inconvenience in Jackson, because it was big enough and windy enough to do power grid damage, but actual home damage was limited that far north.

I'm looking at the forecasts for random points in what might be considered western North Carolina, and they're not worrisome to me. Are you west of Greensboro? There, the gusts on Tuesday are expected to be in the 26MPH range. I'm not you, but I've slept through worse than that here in Houston (Ike, for example) -- in my 3rd floor bedroom, with massive windows.

Prepare for power and water service interruption, and realize lots of things might not be open quickly (ie., so have critical meds and food on hand for a few days), but I wouldn't sweat the wind.
posted by uberchet at 1:09 PM on September 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: West of Greensboro, yes. In a forecast where it's coming up through Georgia or South Carolina, we do stand to get significant wind. If it's as strong as a normal severe thunderstorm, it's at least enough wind to knock down a tree or two.

I also wonder about this in general, not necessarily specific to Irma--sometimes severe weather hits and it occurs to me that I really don't know where in our house is safe!
posted by witchen at 1:13 PM on September 7, 2017

You want to be in a location that has the greatest distance from exterior walls. That means a hallway or a bathroom in most houses. You don't have to spend the entire storm in there, just during the worst of it.
posted by vivzan at 1:32 PM on September 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

Fran was terrible, your concern is justified, dont let people tell you otherwise. I second what vivzan said. Look gor the room furthest from exterior walls on the first floor.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 1:44 PM on September 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Well, define "significant wind" and "severe weather."

Mid-grade tropical storm wind (say, 50MPH gusts) can down SOME trees, but not many, and probably only those that are compromised by age or disease. It's too late now, but down here people make a point of having arborists evaluate trees that are close enough to structures to create trouble in high wind.

It might be a comfort for you to know that pines in particular are hella difficult to blow over. They flex, and they have deep tap roots, so they bend and sometimes get topped in VERY high wind, but outright blowdown is harder short of tornadoes. Katrina took pines out in south Mississippi, but (again) pretty much only within 90 or 100 miles of the coast.

NOAA says this about Category 1 Hurricane wind damage.
Well-constructed frame homes could have damage to roof, shingles, vinyl siding and gutters. Large branches of trees will snap and shallowly rooted trees may be toppled. Extensive damage to power lines and poles likely will result in power outages that could last a few to several days.
Again, that's Cat 1, which is winds of 74 to 95 MPH, and you probably won't see that.

The Beaufort Scale is also interesting. Any hurricane is a Beaufort 12; inland winds for you are unlikely to be higher than a Beaufort 8 or 9, at least to my understanding.
posted by uberchet at 1:50 PM on September 7, 2017

Response by poster: (Sorry to threadsit, and thank you for the responses so far)

But, on the first floor, farthest from exterior walls = still being in a large room with large windows and/or glass patio doors. It seems silly, but I'm considering building a small fort under the dining room table and set a sofa or heavy chair around the sides. Is that worthwhile at all? Or could we shoot for the middle of the room--fort or not--and hope that no glass flies that far inside?

"Significant wind"/"severe weather": What I have in mind is a severe thunderstorm that blew through our area earlier this summer and knocked down some trees (notably sycamores, IIRC) and a powerline and blocked the main road to our neighborhood. So the memory of that, and the memory of Fran, are what I'm going on. I don't know mph for the wind that took out those trees, but I know it was enough to take out the trees.

And (for the sake of the question) (also in reality) we can't get an arborist out to our place before the storm--assume a house surrounded by tall and old trees--pine, sycamore, tulip poplar, etc.
posted by witchen at 1:58 PM on September 7, 2017

Also, even though Irma will have weakened considerably by the time it reaches you, there could still be a tornado threat - especially in the northeastern quadrant. An interior room on your ground floor is a good shelter if no basement is available in the event there is a tornado warning for your area.
posted by penguinicity at 2:23 PM on September 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I know where is safest, according to every Google-able source, but unfortunately, in my house, there is no interior room on the ground floor. Just a coat closet with lots of glass immediately outside. So my question is about whether we might be safe in a 2nd-story interior room, or the coat closet, or a makeshift fort, or what.
posted by witchen at 2:26 PM on September 7, 2017 [7 favorites]

I understand your anxiety, truly, I do, but I'd urge you to consider what threats you're trying to protect yourself from, and then sort out how likely they are.

I also know I am probably coming off as cavalier to folks from outside the traditional "hurricane zone," but in all likelihood you're safe in your house where you live. It's the persistent very high winds that produce a danger of blown-in windows and flying glass. I suspect that is NOT a risk west of Greensboro.

Falling trees are certainly a concern in high winds, but you also have to factor in physics. We didn't worry too much about the big-ass pecan in our back yard because there's not enough room between its branches and our house for it to accelerate appreciably before our house stopped it. How close are these trees? How massive? How much space do they have to fall before they hit your house? If one does fall, where on the roof is it likely to land?

Again, though, I'm sympathetic to your worries here. If you absolutely want to be safe from the trees that surround your house and other debris that may or may not be a threat given the wind level in your location, you could consider decamping for the evening to a friend or relative's home with better interior options.

The downside is that, should your home suffer some minor issues like broken windows, you won't be around to arrest the damage until later -- potentially much later. Time's your enemy there; a broken window can be cleaned up during the storm, and you can work to limit the damage if you're there. If you're somewhere else, you can't do that, and the water will have the chance do make greater mischief.
posted by uberchet at 2:26 PM on September 7, 2017

Best answer: Do a tour of your yard and note the location of the trees. Assume they won't leap across the yard but if they did happen to fall or a branch broke in exactly the worst direction, which rooms would they fall in? Plan on not sleeping or hanging out in those rooms. If it's every room, hie thee to a hotel or something during the storm until you can deal with it. Make a note to get an arborist in later to potentially trim or remove obvious threats.
Do a tour of your ground floor and assess the stability of your windows and glass doors. If they are modern, solidly made double glass, you are probably fine unless you get a direct hit from something flying, so if the winds are nasty and you were downstairs I would just hang out on the side of the house that wasn't facing the wind. Keep the shades or blinds drawn for more safety. If they are not so modern or rattle a bit, I might tape them up or put contact paper over them so at least if they break the glass won't go flying, and then again, just hang out on the other side of the house. Make a note to contemplate shutters or some type of storm boards ready to go for next time.
posted by dness2 at 3:13 PM on September 7, 2017 [6 favorites]

Whether it's irrelevant for this event or not, witchen needs to know this in case of a tornado warning. It's good planning.
posted by kitten magic at 3:31 PM on September 7, 2017 [5 favorites]

I'm a fellow southerner who survived the inland strike of Hugo in 1989. If Irma strikes Savannah/Charleston and heads north, it will be following the path of Hugo. We were fine during Hugo in our mostly open floorplan 1970s house. I have a clear memory of watching everything in the world fly past through our bay window while my mom made us stay on the other side of the room, and of hiding in a tiny "hallway" to a bathroom during tornado warnings.

Most of the destruction in NC then was from 1) tornados, 2) big pine trees falling through roofs, and 3) roofs blowing off. I would go for the closet if you have a tornado warning, and otherwise stay on the first floor away from windows (maybe in whichever bedroom has the smallest windows).
posted by hydropsyche at 3:32 PM on September 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

I grew up in Florida in a house with no windowless exterior rooms. Our emergency plan was to ride out any bad storms in the bathtub with a mattress over us. Obviously only works if you have a big enough tub on the ground floor.
posted by galvanized unicorn at 4:07 PM on September 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

What if you pick the sturdiest-seeming ground floor room and cover the window(s) with well-nailed-on plywood?
posted by overhauser at 4:12 PM on September 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

For what it's worth, A Morrison Shelter was totally a thing. Primarily designed to protect against flying debris not a direct bomb hit. It is similar to your idea to build a shelter underneath the dining room table. I wodl only do this is the table is extremely sturdy. Something else to consider is could you make a heavy plywood cover for say the patio doors, and install that if it looks like the wind will hit you hard. This would reduce your flying glass risk in at least one room. Going forward, there are films you can install that hold glass together and are permanently installed so even if glass breaks, it holds in place. It looks like taping your windows has some mixed review :-/
posted by Northbysomewhatcrazy at 4:20 PM on September 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Ok, so what you want to do is look for a room/space that has at least two walls that are block and, if possible, the shortest truss run. The interior room suggestions are great when you're dealing with shattering glass and such, but for sustained hurricane force winds where you're likely to lose a portion of your roof, you want to pick the strongest section of roof to be under- you can always grab some plywood and cover the windows of the space you choose.

Source: Almost lifelong Floridian, raised by a man who built by hand every house I lived in as a kid.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 5:18 PM on September 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I actually think the coat closet sounds fine, if everyone can fit. If glass shatters outside of it, thrown coats over it when you come out.

I actually live in a bungalow and a birch tree came down on my roof over our bed. That was not a hurricane but the roof held fine. In a hurricane or a tornado that won't apply but the point that roof strength counts too is a good one.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:49 PM on September 7, 2017 [4 favorites]

In the immortal words of our Oklahoma weather forecasters, spoken with great solemnity each tornado season:

Seek shelter on the lowest floor in the smallest interior room. Stay away from windows (don't open the windows to "equalize air pressure" -- that's old-school and false). Lying inside the bathtub is suggested, but of course that's for a short time while the sirens are going off, not for several hours.
Grab some insulating materials -- pillows, blankets, sofa cushions, mattresses if that works for you. Time to build a fort! Flashlights and sippy cups of the beverage of your choice are nice. Helmets are nicer (motorcycle, bicycle, football).

Consider the conjunction of access to beverages and lack of running (and flushing) water, for several days. Plan for that.
If you have plywood or two-by-fours, now would be a good time to grab a cordless screwdriver and get windows covered. Make sure any projectiles are put inside before they become wind-born (furniture, gardening tools).
Now would also be a good time to gather a backpack or duffle bag of things for cleanup after the storms, particularly work gloves, protective eye wear, and sturdy non-slip footwear for walking on broken glass, nails, jagged metal and other debris.
Be careful about downed electric lines and broken gas lines. Carbon monoxide is no joke -- don't build fires inside the house (unless the fireplace is in good working order).
And never, ever, drive into running water. It only takes a few inches to lift a vehicle and send it into danger. More people die from drowning than other storm-related issues.
posted by TrishaU at 6:01 PM on September 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

You can also mitigate the hazards of a window. Tape liberally applied will somewhat hold it together. Extra plastic or fabric sheeting applied inside and out will provide a sort of catch in case it breaks. Lay a mattress, furniture, or other large items alongside it to provide more mass between you and the outside.

Tape a sheet up outside it as well to provide some damper from the wind, rain, and any other projectiles that might come along.
posted by nickggully at 8:22 PM on September 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

If you tape your windows to provide protection from broken glass be sure to remove that tape after the storm has passed. Sunshine has a way of making the glue in the tape permanent, and the best tool to remove it may be a hammer after some months.

Bathrooms are usually the best place to hunker down. The windows tend to be small and the walls close together, so stronger. The shower or bathtub are pretty good refuges if things start to fall apart.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 10:13 AM on September 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

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