Five years into Bill Eberle’s 31-year career as a disaster claims adjuster for Madison-based American Family Insurance, he worked a big area storm and saw such damage that it made him question how homes are put together.

It was in late April 1984, and a tornado had just ripped through Wisconsin southeast of Wales in Waukesha County — killing one person, injuring 14 and wreaking widespread property damage and destruction.

He’d never seen anything like it.

“I was a young adjuster with the company, and new to that degree of devastation,” Eberle, now 56, recalled. “Seeing how that type of storm can so severely affect people’s lives was a life-changing experience for me.”

As part of the work associated with that storm, Eberle handled the claim of one man who suffered a severe head injury when he was struck by a falling beam when his house collapsed on him and his family. Recovery and rehabilitation of the man’s injuries took years, Eberle said, and helped plant the seed for questions that would go on to motivate Eberle’s career.

“Why were some homes, like this one, completely destroyed, while neighboring homes had only minor damage?” Eberle said. “He and his family were lucky to survive. How many people die each year in tornadoes or severe windstorms who don’t have to?”

Today, in the town of Bristol near Sun Prairie, Eberle and his wife, Jean Folts-Eberle, are building a house that promises to withstand most of the storm damage Eberle has seen over the years through improved construction techniques and building materials, the couple said. And they want everyone to know about it.

“We are excited about getting the word out and increasing awareness of this style of construction,” Eberle said. “It’s pretty simple and affordable, so it’s surprising that more builders aren’t doing it.”

“We believe in an ounce of prevention,” Jean Folts-Eberle said, rather than a pound of cure.

If all goes as planned, the Eberles’ 2,050-square-foot ranch home, going up in the 2900 block of Grandview Circle, will be the first house in Wisconsin to provide advanced protection against high winds and hail, as certified by the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety’s new Fortified Home program.

The industry-leading nonprofit in Tampa, Florida, is funded by insurers and studies decades of storm data to find ways to make homes and businesses more impact-resistant to natural and man-made hazards alike.

The program’s approach works on the theory that spending a little more upfront to build in protections — or to retrofit an existing home — is far cheaper and more effective than cleaning up the consequences after a problem. According to a study done for the National Institute of Building Sciences, for every dollar spent on pre-disaster mitigation, society saves $4, Eberle said.

“The way a home is built, from the ground up, is critical,” added Eberle, who went on to manage American Family’s catastrophe claims department for 10 years before switching in 2010 to product research, where he works as a senior specialist now.

It was in his current job that Eberle first learned about the IBHS Fortified programs through serving on the organization’s Research Advisory Council.

“They’re coming up with different construction techniques and materials to make homes and businesses safer, to reduce property damage and save lives,” Eberle said about institute researchers, who first developed advanced protection guidelines for homes in hurricane-prone coastal areas, starting in 2010, and just this month released standards for inland communities’ chief weather hazards: high wind and hail.

“(Eberle) is an early adopter for us,” said Fred Malik, director of IBHS’ Fortified programs, adding that people don’t have to be in the path of a hurricane or an E5 (the worst) tornado to see severe damage from storms.

“We have houses that are being damaged far below those extreme wind speeds,” Malik said. “We’ve done tests in our lab where we see shingles labeled to withstand 100 miles per hour fail at 60. Billions of dollars are spent every year in paying out insured losses for high-wind events far away from the coast.”

The Eberles hired Marten Building & Design, based in Sun Prairie, to build their new house. Owner Randy Marten has been building custom homes since 1996.

“I’m the skeptic (normally),” Marten said, noting he tends to be cautious about adopting new approaches, preferring the tried-and-true. “But everything about this seems to make sense and be logical.”

Marten also said he was doing about half the things called for in the Fortified approach already, and would consider offering the whole program to other clients after he’s done it successfully for the Eberles.

“Everything seems very reasonable, so far,” Martin said in late July, when his crew had poured the home’s basement and were already beginning to sink the extra foundation bolts required by the program guidelines.

Other signature steps to the Fortified approach include:

  • Taping the building joints, with modified bitumen tape to better seal roof joints.
  • Gluing and nailing the sheathing on the walls, rather than just nailing, to provide a more secure hold.
  • Using metal hurricane straps or ties, to better anchor the roof to the top of the house walls and make it more resistant to uplift or to blowing off entirely.
  • Sprayed-in insulation around doors and windows, to better protect against wind rattling through.
  • The use of ring shank nails, which have grooves that grip like screws, to hold tighter than smooth nails.
  • Better roofing shingles. Eberle selected a brand made from a polymer material that allow shingles to “stretch like a gummy bear” and then snap back into shape, rather than break like many traditional ones would.

Eberle estimated it would cost him about $5,000 for the improvements on a $300,000 home, including $2,000 for a better roof, a key area for improvements.

“There are no guarantees, but we wanted to make our new home as safe and as resistant to storm damage as possible,” Eberle said. “The cost difference was relatively small compared to the potential benefit.

“It is something my wife and I truly believe in,” he added. “I have seen too much death and destruction from storms in my lifetime, so I hope that word gets out and this approach saves some lives and some properties. That is all that I hope to gain from this.”

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Karen Rivedal is the education beat reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.