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Saving Homes From Devastating Fires & Floods
Two Simple Solutions Could Save Entire
Communities From Fires & Hurricanes

By Douglas Herman


It all begins with the roof.

 Years ago, during the Northridge earthquake, I lived and worked in Santa Monica. I worked in custom cabinetry and also helped restore antiques damaged in that earthquake. At the time, immediately after what became known locally as the MLK earthquake, a couple of friends were making good money strapping houses to their foundations. How very strange, I thought, that houses were NOT required to be anchored to their foundations BEFORE the quake, in earthquake-prone LA.  Alas, we humans often take decisive measures only after a devastating disaster.

 From earthquakes to fires, Southern California is a danger zone. Fifty years before these epic fires, I recall seeing a newspaper photograph of a famous race car driver standing on his roof, battling fiery embers with a garden hose.  Bravery or foolhardy; I do not know, but the image stuck with me

 Suppose every house in SoCal had a sprinkler system, plumbed with metal pipe not PVC, running to the rooftop. Water could be stored in a cistern, much like those where the ancient Romans stored theirs. Where would this water come from, you ask? During heavy rainfalls, as occurred last winter, the water would be saved, not lost, not allowed to run down channels into the Pacific Ocean.

 All over Switzerland, one can see thousands of water fountains, according to a recent story on Zerohedge. “Elegant yes, but if and when central water systems are destroyed these fountains are a decentralized and robust system for providing everyone with drinkable water.”

 Imagine having water in abundance nearby to fight a cataclysmic fire. Hillside houses worth many millions could have such a system designed into it for a fraction of the cost of replacing the structure.  Wealthier clients could have the system run directly from their swimming pools, powered by electricity, along with an emergency, secondary diesel generator.

 Middle class neighborhoods like Santa Rosa could have one (or more) large, centrally-located water tank.  Sprinklers could run to the rooftop of every home. Children would sleep safe and stress-free, knowing their home is safe from fire. A state like California, that prides itself on social responsibility, should consider community projects such as these. Taxpayers should have their homes protected, shouldn't they? With billions of dollars to devote to sports complexes and high speed rail projects, certainly a few millions can be found to fight devastating fires that wreck entire communities and destroy lives.

 “The word from Santa Rosa officials is that if anyone wants to rebuild, the fees can be as high as $88,000.00,” said accountant Anne Berg. “Also the paperwork will be massive. It’s like rebuilding in a warzone. And who can afford to fork out that kind of money unless insurance pays?”

 Thus, wouldn’t preventive measures be in order NOW? Not only would these small, above-ground, emergency water reservoirs serve in a fire emergency, providing rooftop sprinklers for scores of homes, but the freshwater would be there as an emergency in an earthquake.
Just like in Switzerland. Because larger earthquakes, like the so-called Big One, with the power to shift fault lines several feet, will break waterlines like spaghetti. Repairs might take several days or even weeks.  Critics may claim that no water can be stored during prolonged droughts but, surprisingly, water can be found for golf courses, car washes and rice production in California.

 During Spring break, students could be recruited to clear brush in exchange for free college credits or student loan reduction. An ounce of fire prevention is worth a thousand gallons of water, an old firefighter said to me once.  Brush clearance is prevention. Similar to the old Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC), these kids would be serving their community and having fun and fresh air too. Even old guys like me might volunteer. After all, better that the hills are alive with the sound of music and adolescent laughter, rather than the roar of flames, the stench of death, and the smell of smoke.

 From Fires to Floods

 Years later I lived in South Florida. I witnessed Katrina come across the state as a Category #1, and saw it strengthen and flood New Orleans. Hurricane Wilma came across the state a little later, as a Category #2 and ripped up roofs and toppled wooden power poles along Dixie Highway. Some areas, entire communities, suffered without electricity for weeks. How very strange, I thought, that Florida allowed wooden power poles well into the 20th century.  They have all since been replaced.

 After Hurricane Irma wrenched roofs from thousands of homes in Puerto Rico recently, I wondered if there might be a simpler way to save roofs. If you save the roof, you save the home from devastating flood damage. Where I work on Kodiak Island, as a commercial fisherman, we use 400 meter long black nylon nets to catch salmon. Many old nets lie moldering on pallets in warehouses. These nets are strong enough to catch whales, having witnessed it firsthand myself. Suppose a small portion of that old net, say 60 feet by 100 feet, was draped over a home, over the roof and down the walls, a day before a hurricane was due; would that work? Then suppose the ends of the net were tied to the foundation, secured with stout bindings in a score of locations. The winds would whip, whistling through the net, but the roof would remain intact and homes remain dry.  Then, after the storm, the net would be removed, folded and stored away until needed next time. These nets would provide a cheap solution while saving millions in repairs and thousands of poor people would benefit.

 Once again, it all begins with the roof

Hurricane-threatened houses worth many millions could have such a system designed into it for a fraction of the cost of replacing the structure.  Wealthier clients, like Sir Richard Branson, who lost his roof in Hurricane Irma, could have the net system designed and built right into the structure.  Next time, Richard Branson might avoid such devastation to Necker Island.

 Then Sir Richard could start a non-profit charity organization called Virgin Nets. Imagine how wonderful this simple act of kindness would spread throughout, impoverished, hurricane-ravaged islands. Not only would Branson be knighted but blessed as a true benefactor than just another billionaire. After all, as some old dotards have discovered: Kindness Generates Kindness.

 Postscript: An abbreviated version of this column was sent to a dozen of the largest California daily newspapers and to over two dozen editors there. NONE of them deigned to respond, and the fires there still rage and homes still burn.