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Guidance before a natural disaster

A little-known Tampa institute that works to minimize loss of life and property is now a top resource for emergency preparedness.

Published July 10, 2006

TAMPA - Tucked away from Fowler Avenue traffic sits a fortress of thick concrete, steel and impact-resistant glass. On the bottom floor is a Museum of Science and Industry welcome center and gift shop. A teenage girl working there couldn't tell you what's upstairs.

But if you ring a doorbell out back, walk through one of the pressure-resistant doors and climb the stairs, what you'll find is more than you ever wanted to know about shattered windows, imploded garage doors and human despair.

You'll leave with pamphlets and tips about roof nails, washing machine hoses and how to hold it together when everything around you is destroyed. You'll drive away wanting to build a concrete fortress of your own.

Few people have heard of the Institute for Business & Home Safety, a nonprofit organization housed in a $2.75-million building shaped like a circular hurricane symbol with a glass eye. The institute moved from Boston to the MOSI campus in 2002 and quickly grew into one of the nation's top resources on disaster preparedness.

It has been around since the '70s, but "we really took off after Hurricane Andrew," said Wendy Rose, the institute's spokeswoman. "In the six years we've had our Web site, we went from a few thousand hits to just hitting the 70- or 80-billion mark. We find ourselves on blogs now, which is kind of neat to see."

More lately, the institute's advice has popped up in everything from the New York Times to MSNBC to cosmetology trade magazines. Members of its 22-person staff speak at conferences and seminars all over the United States, educating business leaders and government officials about better building codes and tax incentives for vigilant homeowners.

They also swoop in on broken communities, perform autopsies on their ruined homes and businesses, and tell them how to rebuild the right way. They take photos to document troubling evidence, such as one they like to show of a garden gnome lying face-down in a Punta Gorda yard. It was thrown by Hurricane Charley through a woman's picture window, creating an opening for wind to rush in and knock the home's roof off.

The lesson: Collect all those loose ends out of your yard before the storm hits. Anything can become a life-threatening missile.

In essence, the institute's employees are a group of well-educated and well-researched Chicken Littles who work in partnership with organizations such as the Red Cross and the American Insurance Association. They want everyone to have flood insurance, storm shutters and better doors and windows. They study how folks behave before, during and after the storm. They have learned tricky tactics to get people to listen.

For example, their research shows that people hate the word "mitigation" (sounds too much like "litigation"), so they use the term "property safety and prevention" instead. And they know that people don't like getting brochures unless they've asked for them or they're in a desperate situation, so they spread information through other media outlets. Also, people like to look at disaster aftermath on television or in photos, but the images don't typically motivate people to protect themselves. Educational articles do, though, so that's where the institute puts its focus.

The institute is funded largely by the insurance industry. In this case, the industry's goals are in concert with home and business owners: little to no damage to their properties. When homes and businesses are strong enough to withstand destruction, and no one is filing loss claims, everybody's happy.

"Our basic mission is to help homes and families rebuild, to keep businesses open and preserve jobs," said Harvey Ryland, president and CEO of the institute. "We don't sell anything. We give everything away."

And they don't just do hurricanes. They deal in hail, fire, earthquakes, sinkholes, tornadoes and other unstoppable forces of nature.

Ryland, who served as deputy director at Federal Emergency Management Agency from 1993-96 and has worked in the emergency management field for more than 30 years, has seen it all. So it's no wonder that, much like the other staffers at the institute, he has perhaps the safest home in his neighborhood.

He chose to buy a 1950s fixer-upper in West Shore's Beach Park neighborhood to be close to the surrounding shops and restaurants. But it's also in one of the worst flood zones in Tampa. So the home has been restored with an impact-resistant garage door, dual-glazed glass windows with shutters and waterproof tape on the seams of his roof decking panels. He keeps a generator and sandbags handy at all times and has videotaped his entire property to document his belongings.

Rose recently drilled her real estate agent with a list of structural-related questions before buying a house in Venice. Tim Reinhold, the institute's vice president of engineering, installed hurricane screens around his lanai and hurricane shutters around the rest of his North Tampa house.

Even the institute's headquarters at MOSI is designed to withstand a direct hit from a major hurricane, and will serve as a hurricane shelter for employees' families who need it.

"We'll be here," Rose said. "No one else will be here, but we'll be here."

Until that happens, though, the Institute for Business & Home Safety doesn't mind working in obscurity here in the Tampa Bay area. Besides helping MOSI with an upcoming exhibit called "Disasterville," which will demonstrate the havoc nature can wreak on people, homes and communities, the institute rarely makes its presence known in town.

That has at least one small drawback.

"We still can't get a pizza delivered," Rose said.

Emily Nipps can be reached at (813) 269-5313 or

[Last modified October 4, 2006, 11:10:12]

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