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Virtual reality tornado experience raises awareness of wind perils

Posted On: Jun. 29, 2017 2:36 PM CST

Munich Reinsurance America Inc. has released a tornado virtual reality experience tool to highlight the risks posed by tornadoes and the importance of embracing resiliency in building construction to help reduce future property losses.

Property damage from convective storms in the United States has been steadily increasing over the past 40 years, exceeding more than $22 billion in economic losses, including $15.3 billion in insured losses, in 2016, according to the Princeton, New Jersey-based reinsurer.

“Within the United States, on occasion we do have the very severe coastal hurricane events like Sandy, like Matthew last year, but year in and year out, the United States consistently has very high levels of insured loss due to severe thunderstorm events, which includes tornado, hail and high winds,” said Mark Bove, senior research meteorologist at Munich Re US.

But the peril is often overlooked, particularly in comparison to coastal hurricanes that have much higher loss potentials, he said. The reinsurer is using the virtual reality tool to raise awareness of not only the risk, but the importance of including resiliency in building construction. The tool can be found online via YouTube and requires a Google VR headset for the full experience.

Many building codes in the United States do not require a home to withstand more than a 90-mph gust of wind for three seconds, which is the equivalent of a weak EF1 tornado with wind speeds between 86 to 110 miles per hour.

“After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Florida implemented much stricter building codes, and even in the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005 that followed, we could see the difference that strong resilient building codes and other wind mitigation techniques like hurricane shutters did in those regions,” he said. “In fact, we could see the difference with damage in Florida from the hurricanes of 2004 as compared to hurricane damage in other states with less stringent building codes along the Gulf Coast in 2005.”

“Tornados are actually the most powerful wind storms on earth, with winds potentially reaching in excess of 200 miles per hour,” Mr. Bove continued. “America’s heartland, particularly in the Great Plains and the Midwest, is the No. 1 location for tornados on the entire globe. In the central part of the U.S., we really do not construct homes to withstand these kinds of windstorms. And a lot of people don’t realize how quickly and suddenly a tornado can come up and cause destruction on a house. The tornado VR gives a very visceral experience of how quickly these conditions can go bad and how quickly damage can occur to a house, particularly one that is not built resiliently.”

Preliminary reports from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration show that there were an estimated 945 tornadoes from January to April 2017. With an early and active start to the 2017 tornado season, 34 deaths have already been reported compared with 18 deaths during all of 2016.

“EF1 and EF0 tornados make up about 75% of all tornados we see in the U.S.,” Mr. Bove said. “If we can build more resiliency to withstand even these EF1 and EF0 tornados, we could save a lot of homes, a lot of properties and even lives.”

EF0 tornadoes have wind speeds of 65-85 mph.

“We like to consider building codes set by the states as a floor,” he continued. The codes “really should be viewed as minimum suggested standards. Unfortunately, many people just take them as requirements that need to be met, not necessarily exceeded.”