At 10 a.m. Aug. 29, Hurricane Katrina arrived at Biloxi's Point Cadet neighborhood with an unexpected 30-foot storm surge and power enough to crumble the 2-mile-long reinforced concrete bridge to neighboring Ocean Springs, Miss.

This Biloxi, Miss., home with a metal roof was damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Despite the hurricane's destructive force, the metal roof is in decent shape. Photo by Mark Wolfe. Courtesy of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Three miles west and four blocks off the beach, my son Jimmy was swimming for his life after exiting his relocated and newly renovated home. That decision to swim over to an exposed attic probably saved his life. The journey was a desperate, torturous progression between islands of nail-impregnated floating debris, boats, cars, attic insulation and whole houses. The surreal scene slowly moved up and down in rhythm with the action of the waves offshore.

From the attic refuge, Jimmy watched his own house disintegrate from the 145-mph wind and two walls float to the middle of Pearl Street. Later, the house would be bulldozed and removed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He, like everyone else on Point Cadet, lost almost everything he had - except his spirit.

Piles of debris

Within a few hours, the water had receded and only the mud and endless piles of debris remained on the lots and in the streets. Jimmy made his way east on Interstate 10 to a relative's house in Ocean Springs. He returned to Point Cadet the following day to photograph the remains of his house and seek out any personal belongings that might be salvageable.

One photograph he e-mailed me was of a Galvalume sheet metal roof I helped him install. It was on a section of his house that remained standing.

While we were attaching the roof panels, I jokingly said, "No hurricane will take this roof off."

This is a close-up of the retrofitted metal roof on a 165,000-square-foot warehouse in New Orleans that survived 185-mph winds without damage. The roof was installed using a special "Z" bar attachment from Roof Hugger, which made it super strong. Many other buildings in the warehouse district of New Orleans were destroyed. You can see some debris from the surrounding buildings on the roof. Photo courtesy of Sensebe and Associates.
In an e-mailed note that accompanied the picture, Jimmy said, "Dad, you were right; your roof stayed on."

About six weeks after that terrible day in August, I finally felt that the time was right for me to go down to Biloxi and help my son with mental and physical support. He, like many other hurricane victims, was falling into a kind of post-storm state of hopelessness.

Prior to the hurricane, he earned a living by operating a charter fishing boat. It now sat atop 10 feet of rubble, its trailer under the porch section of a nearby house. Our mission was to recover the trailer, get the 5,000-pound boat back onto it, and get him back in the fishing business.

These three houses, located just a few steps east the of the hard-hit Claiborne and Pearl streets in Biloxi, shows how homes that have metal roofs can fare better in a hurricane. Built by Mike Geiser, president of Geiser Homes LLC, these 1,100-square-foot cottages cost about $55,000 each to build, including the Galvalume sheet metal roofs from Dixie Building Supply and installed by subcontractor Matt Gill. Notice the hip-roof design, which eliminated the gable ends, a key factor in the survival of the roofs. Geiser also recently completed three other houses of the same size with metal roof construction in the area, and all survived without roof failure. Photo by Jim Segroves

‘Healing' work

I believe that work is the best healer of trauma. With the help of a local cleanup contractor, Fred Fayard, owner of F&F Construction Co., and his equipment, in one day we were able to dig out the trailer, set the boat on it, and get it to a safe place. For payment, Fayard only required the promise of some speckled sea trout or flounder when Jimmy gets back to fishing. That helping Cajun spirit is exactly what Katrina could not dampen and exactly what will bring the whole Gulf Coast area back stronger and better than ever.

That day after the boat was secure, I walked around the neighborhood near that intersection of Claiborne and Pearl streets. I observed that of the few houses that remained standing, several had metal roofs with relatively little or no roof damage. By comparison, many houses with composition shingle roofs were seriously or totally destroyed. This struck me as extremely important considering the enormous residential rebuilding costs along the Gulf Coast.

This 100-year-old house with an old, rusty metal roof is located a few yards west of the Claiborne-Pearl Street intersection. This house survived hurricanes Camille, Katrina and others. Photo by Jim Segroves
As most contractors know, any roof, whether made of shingles or sheet metal, is only as strong as the structure it is attached to - and how it's attached. In many cases, gable ends are an almost inevitable point of roof failure. This is because when the gable end facing into the wind breaks, a "domino effect" quickly results. The opposite gable end will blow out, followed by the plywood sheathing or even the complete roof structure.

Better designs

When the complete roof structure is gone, the walls collapse. The lesson: Houses designed with hip roofs that have no gable ends and sheet metal roof panels are more likely to survive.

For example, look at the photo of the 100-year-old house with a metal roof on page 15 (right). It was taken facing west from Claiborne and Pearl streets. Note that the sheet metal roof is so old that it has large areas of solid rust. I did not inspect this house up close, but my guess would be that the sheet metal panels are attached with old-style ring-shank, lead-headed nails as opposed to the screws used on modern metal roofs. It's a tough old roof, and it seems there is something to be learned here.

We know that the trick is to keep the wind from getting under the roofing (See sketch No. 1. It shows an eve edge with plywood sheathing, a metal seal and the lower end of the sheet metal roof panel). In hurricane areas, this concept must be used on all exposed edges of sheet metal roof panels, especially those facing east on the Gulf Coast, which are the direction of the strongest counterclockwise hurricane winds. (See sketch No. 1, which shows the lower end of a metal roof panel at the eve and upper end at ridge. Also see sketch No. 2 for gable and rake edge seal details.)

Critical areas

Another critical area of hurricane-resistant house construction is the attachment of the roof structure - ceiling joists and rafters - to the wall-top plates, or on new construction to the wall studs and top plates. As stated previously, when this connection fails, the whole house will usually collapse. This connection is done by attaching heavy metal bands to the roof truss assemblies and to the exterior walls (See sketch No. 1). This is now in many local building codes after Hurricane Andrew hit Florida years ago and is proving to be good technology in recent hurricanes.

The third critical area of hurricane construction is to reinforce the gable ends. This is relatively inexpensive and usually only requires a few 2-by-4 braces added to the structure immediately behind the gable ends in the attic.

For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or e-mail


A Mississippi contractor's perspective on Katrina

Roofing contractor Roger Meiers hasn't just worked in hurricane-hit areas, he's lived in them.

"I personally understand what my customers that lost their roofs and belongings are feeling," said Meiers, vice president of Skyline Roofing and Sheet Metal in Ocean Springs, Miss. "I lost everything to (2004's) Hurricane Ivan in Florida. It is such a shame and so unnecessary to lose those irreplaceable family items in a matter of minutes when a roof covering fails. I have made it my mission in business to make that preventable."

Meiers said if more homes had metal roofs, these storms wouldn't be so damaging.

"Even using the lower-cost exposed-fastener systems, we can install roof systems that can withstand over 120-mph winds," he added. "With the heavier concealed-fastener standing-seam sheet-metal roof panels, the roofs have survived winds well in excess of 145 mph. The economics become so obvious when we compare the initial cost of a quality sheet metal roof to the high probability of losing a composition shingle roof, interior ceilings, insulation, walls, carpets, appliances and personal belongings as the result of even a moderately strong future hurricane."

Some people are getting the message. The roof retrofit business is a very big part of the recovery activities in the Gulf Coast area, Meiers said. Metal roofs are being installed directly over patched-up composition-shingle roofs, providing extra protection against future storms.

Meiers pointed out that he prefers to remove the damaged composition roof and fasten the new sheet metal roof panels directly through the plywood decking and into the roof trusses. He uses long, heavy-duty metal-to-wood screws on close centers. Meiers said he has spent years developing hurricane-resistant wind-seal techniques for eves, ridges, and gable ends on residential and commercial projects up to 1 million square feet.

My opinion

It seems to me that it would be logical to implement hurricane construction codes throughout the Gulf Coast. It also seems to me that sheet metal roofs could be an important part of that movement. My bet would be that if sheet metal roofs were as common as composition shingle roofs, they could be much less expensive than composition shingles. This could greatly reduce the rebuilding costs.

In addition, there are other incentives to go metal: Metal roofs last longer, look better, resist damage from hurricanes and hail, add value, and provide a cost-effective return on investment to the homeowners. Perhaps it is time for the federal government and the insurance industry to take a hard look at this option.