Insurer's lab tests help design protections from disaster

Extreme weather and natural disasters are among the most significant threats facing the world this year, according to a recent survey of global experts and decision-makers. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria -- along with 13 other major natural disasters -- caused more than $300 billion in damage last year. That's a new record for the U.S.

The research done at FM Global Research's 1,600-acre campus in northwestern Rhode Island is passed along to businesses so they and the communities they serve can bounce back faster after a disaster strikes.

Inside the facility's fire lab, one of the world's largest flames tears through two shelves stacked high with boxes. It looks like a catastrophe, but this is only a demonstration.

One shelf is protected by a sprinkler system that triggers moments into the test; the other is not.

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A warehouse fire scenario is tested in FM Global Researxch's lab. One stack is protected by an automatic sprinkler, the other is not.  

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"This feels like a furnace right now," said correspondent Tony Dokoupil.

"It is truly a wall of fire," said Louis Gritzo, who creates disasters regularly for his clients.

"So, what's the lesson?"

"The lesson here is, tested, installed and maintained protection works effectively," Gritzo replied. "One sprinkler," he said, would reduce a fire to a "distraction," rather than "a disaster."

Gritzo is research manager for insurance firm FM Global. His team believes the only way to truly know how something will stand up to disaster is to put it through one.

"We're in the business of protecting businesses from every hazard they can throw at them, so that's all the things that Mother Nature does and all the things that people do," he said.

FM Global uses these tests to show its clients -- including Fortune 500 companies -- how they can better protect themselves. A better protected business is less risky to insure.

There are also takeaways for consumers. One machine can test shingles against hurricane-force winds. Dokoupil watched during one test in which a roof was ripped off.

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These roof shingles fail the wind machine test.

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"So, what do you do to prevent a thing like that?" he asked.  

"Use a shingle that's designed for those higher wind speeds," Gritzo replied. "It's going to be stiffer. It's going to have a little more adhesive."

"Do you ever have clients that just don't believe it until you show it to them?"

"Seeing really is believing," Gritzo responded.

Last year certainly created believers. Losses from Hurricane Harvey alone totaled $125 billion. Historic flooding caused much of the damage.

"We did a study last year with some worldwide experts and showed that in the U.S., the precipitation patterns are such that extreme precipitation -- in other words, when it rains, it's going to rain heavier -- is on the rise," Gritzo said. "And there's good sound physics and good sound data behind that."

"So, whatever the politics of climate change, the insurance and risk picture is pretty clear," said Dokoupil.

"The physics are clear," Gritzo said.

The physics are also clear in this test of a 2x4 piece of lumber being shot out of a cannon, aimed at a half-inch sheet of plywood.  

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A one-half-inch sheet of plywood is no match for a 2x4 projected with a force comparable to hurricane-speed winds. 

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Plywood sheets are easy for one person to carry comfortably, so they're often used to protect the windows of businesses and homes during hurricanes.

As Gritzo demonstrated, "You can see that this projectile, which is moving according to a storm that has about 100 mph wind speed -- went right through that half-inch piece of plywood."

If there was a window behind it, this 2x4 would have smashed through the plywood and glass, exposing the inside to additional damage from wind and rain.

Dokoupil asked, "So, the solution is, get a friend to help you pick up the one-inch plywood?"

"Well, there's some different solutions. And if you really have to do it yourself and you have half-inch plywood, just put up two," Gritzo said.

As Dokoupil witnessed, a 2x4 aimed at a one-inch thick piece of plywood just bounced off.

Gritzo says the one natural hazard they can't always protect against is an F-5 tornado, the strongest kind. One of the company's clients is a Missouri hospital destroyed by an F-5 tornado in 2011. FM Global says it paid that claim, and now the hospital has been rebuilt, with some lessons learned.