Boots on the Ground, Team 4: My Initial Hurricane Sandy Damage Assessments

I landed here in New York for my storm damage inspection assignments and as you’ll read in my last blog post was excited to get started and get to helping. The first night here felt frigidly cold to my Florida skin, but after layering on the threads in the morning we were out the door and ready to go.

The obvious minor stuff was easy – fences blown down, a few uplifted shingles. But what was really intriguing were types of damage that I could literally trace through the house. In structural engineering, there is a fundamental theory called a “load path.” It works very similar to electricity in that it literally flows from the loading point (in this case the roof), down to the ground (in this case, a cracked foundation). Walking around the outside of the structure, we noticed that the ridge beam had an ever-so-slight sag in the middle. Following the load path , we then discovered a drywall crack in the second floor bedroom ceiling underneath that beam, another few cracks in the living room beam, and then BAM – the evidence in the basement was clear as day. We discovered that the loaded ridge beam had transferred its overstress forces right down in the basement. And guess where? Onto the primary wooden girder beam! A girder beam generally serves to support other structural members. I was floored when I saw it – a massively deep and brand-spanking-new CRACK right before my eyes. Looking at the floor, I then noticed that the columns which supported that cracked beam (and everything above it that had shifted) had pushed so hard into the concrete foundation that they caused a huge crack in the slab.

What’s amazing about this inspection is that I read another inspector’s report that stated that the wind had played absolutely no effect on this structure.

Have people forgotten the extreme power of a hurricane and it’s gusting winds? Or is it simply that the engineers who are responding to the damage just don’t realize how a wind can act upon a structure?

Sigh. This is why Florida engineers are needed so badly up here! Wind damage assessment to a structure is a very special and very unique analysis of an event that likely happened long before the actual assessment, but it does not take a Ph.D to notice what wind can do to a structure. Especially Hurricane Sandy’s wind. She bore down hard on the inhabitants of the northeast coast of our nation, but there are experts from Engineering Express (and other firms too I hope!) now here to help everyone understand what can be done to fix this mess. One must simply be thorough, patient, and look for the clues. The structure will tell you!

After that inspection, we moved on to a house near the Intracoastal Waterway in Baldwin, NY. What was really incredible was his seawall. The dock planks had literally been lifted from their structure due to the rushing waters. The retaining wall also had it’s wooden reinforcement stripped away, with pins sticking out where the anchorage used to be.

The last inspection of the day was also interesting. This was a classic case where a prior engineer did not believe that wind had affected the structure. First of all, we noticed a large slope at the rear balcony. When we examined the wooden posts that supported the balcony we found compression cracks indicating that the balcony had received tremendous wind loading. When we walked into the house, it was apparent that wind had seriously racked this structure. There was drywall cracking everywhere. Now, most people will tell you “so what, it’s just drywall!” Well, that drywall is connected to the frame of the house. And if you think about it, if the drywall has in it a crack so severe that it has obvious separation, doesn’t that mean the structure behind the drywall may have shifted in such a way that it may have damaging effects for the framing members? Would you would you want to live in a house that you knew had settled into a different position than what it was designed for? I know I would want my home to be built properly or at least put back to normal so I could depend on it for another 30 years. I would definitely hire a structural engineer, a public adjuster, and probably an attorney to fight for my rights and make sure that the facts were addressed. To me, that’s the best way.

We went to sleep that night after talking for hours about the wind damage we had seen, and how it had been so subtle. It would have been easy for someone else to miss it. Could we gain enough ground tomorrow to hit as many inspections as we could? Stay tuned for tomorrow night’s blog post.

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