Louisiana plans to follow in Alabama’s footsteps with a storm-proofing program for residents.

Louisiana plans to follow in Alabama's footsteps with a storm-proofing program for residents.

Karen Ellis spent her childhood nestled in the tranquility of a rural road in Loxley, Alabama, a quaint small town near the picturesque Mobile Bay. It was here that her family constructed a robust brick ranch house in the 1960s, which always held an impression of unyielding solidity for Ellis.

However, in the tumultuous year of 2020, after Ellis had returned to care for her aging mother, the house faced an unexpected adversary. Hurricane Sally unleashed its wrath on the long-standing family home, tearing a gaping hole in the roof and causing torrents of rain to infiltrate Ellis’ kitchen and bedroom. Roof shingles were scattered across the yard by the powerful storm. Her insurance company offered some financial relief, but it wasn’t sufficient to entirely replace the damaged roof.

Recognizing the pressing need for a new roof but lacking the funds at the time, Ellis was compelled to resort to a temporary solution. A tarpaulin was stretched over the compromised roof and remained in place for over two years, until a morning in April brought with it the arrival of a construction crew. They expertly removed the old, weather-worn roof and replaced it with a robust, more resilient one, designed to withstand future tempests.

Ellis’ new roof is constructed according to the FORTIFIED standard – a comprehensive set of construction guidelines formulated to equip homes to endure severe weather more effectively. Alabama is at the forefront of this kind of construction in the United States, boasting approximately 80% of the nation’s 50,000 FORTIFIED homes, predominantly situated in the coastal counties of Mobile and Baldwin.

Alabama’s success in this domain can be attributed in part to a state program named “Strengthen Alabama Homes”. This program provides grants of up to $10,000 each to aid residents in retrofitting their homes to meet the FORTIFIED standard. The program has gained attention from other states, such as Louisiana, as a potential model to encourage homeowners to stormproof their residences.

For the Ellis family, the program was a beacon of hope. The grant almost entirely covered the cost of their roof replacement, which Ellis gratefully acknowledged as a blessing.

Interest in these storm-proofing grants, technically referred to as “wind mitigation”, has surged since the Alabama government started offering them in 2016. The grants are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis without considering financial need. Given that new applications are only accepted four times a year, competition is intense, and spots are filled rapidly.

Brian Powell, the director of the Mitigation Resources Division at the Alabama Department of Insurance and overseer of the Strengthen Alabama Homes program, remarked on the program’s popularity, “We have seen our grant funds accounted for in as little as eight minutes.”

However, the program’s ambition extends beyond merely replacing weather-beaten roofs. According to Powell, it aims to address a looming crisis: the precarious state of the coastal insurance industry.

The dual impact of Hurricanes Ivan in 2004 and Katrina in 2005 resulted in insurance companies dealing with a barrage of claims, and the escalating damages started to destabilize the industry. The omnipresent threat of climate change further exacerbates this challenge, forcing insurance companies to reevaluate their risk calculations and account for the mounting threats posed by global warming.

This growing uncertainty has had tangible effects on homeowners in coastal Alabama. Insurance companies started to hike up their prices in the mid-2000s, reflecting the heightened future risk. Some even ceased renewing policies, leaving homeowners with limited options and higher insurance premiums. Consequently, some homeowners were compelled to drop their wind insurance, leaving them increasingly exposed in the event of a storm.

Charged with finding a solution to this mounting crisis, Powell identified a starting point: fortifying the homes themselves. He looked across the country for effective strategies and discovered the Insurance Institute for Building and Home Safety (IBHS). Funded by insurance companies, this research group is tasked with identifying ways to reduce the risk of property loss, i.e., reducing the risk of buildings succumbing to severe weather.

To achieve this objective, the IBHS established an expansive research facility in South Carolina. This facility, featuring an airplane hangar with 105 colossal fans, has the capability to simulate hurricanes and other extreme weather conditions. This allows them to rigorously test a house’s resilience against these simulated conditions, providing valuable insights to homeowners like Ellis and industry professionals alike.

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