Tuesday, November 1, 2011

How to experience a tornado without losing your house

by Laura Williams, Center for Housing Policy

When expecting bad weather, spiders weave tighter webs, ants build up their hills and cover the openings, and gophers build mounds over their tunnels.

These are just a few of the facts I learned about how animals prepare their homes for dangerous storms while waiting in line for StormStruck, the “storm replicator” at Disney’s Innoventions pavilion last week, where I would learn more than a few things about how to prepare my own home. In fact, StormStruck was my main reason for being at Disney World at all: to celebrate three years of edutainment (more than 1,000 people visit the exhibition every day) and attend the FLASH Annual Meeting.

So what is a storm replicator? Basically, it simulates a hurricane or tornado right in your own backyard. Twenty or so guests file into the theatre with 3-D glasses, and once the lights lower the screens light up with a nice back-yard view. Slowly, dark clouds gather, the wind picks up, and things start flying around the yard. Before long shingles are missing from the garage and, yup, there goes the “window” so you can now feel gusts of wind and rain on your face. Trees are uprooted (on seemed to land directly on the person sitting next to me) and a swing set is demolished.

Our storm happened to be a tornado. Once it had passed, a Disney cast member came out and led the group through a quick recovery survey – what we needed to repair and how, as well as what we might do in case of a future storm. With the results tabulated, they ran the simulation again to see how we fared.

Being a group of disaster experts, we did quite well for ourselves, but I still learned a lot. My tornado-education in Central Indiana imparted the importance of opening windows before taking shelter. This is actually a dangerous idea, it turns out, as most wind damage to structures results from the wind being able to get inside. Also, that masking tape for windows that sold so well just prior to Hurricane Irene? Totally unnecessary, and potentially dangerous if taping windows keeps you from making more worthwhile preparations.

Outside the theatre there are even more opportunities to pick up tips – from small steps like the ones above to structural recommendations such as the most aerodynamic type of roof and best fasteners to use on the foundation of a house. They even make a game of building a home emergency kit.

StormStruck is a very impressive tool for educating people about disaster preparedness. Luckily, FLASH announced that they have signed a contract with Disney and their other partners to keep the experience running for at least three more years. And if you can’t make it down to Orlando before then, they are about to release a mobile app that will be almost as good. Keep your eyes peeled for that.

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