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Op-Ed: Critical Lessons for Alabama 10 Years after Hurricane Katrina

Bolivar Peninsula, Texas, a few days before Hurricane Ike, September 2008


Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast with devastating force a decade ago. Twenty-two counties in Alabama were declared disaster areas, leaving the state with tremendous social and economic losses. Despite the fact that Alabama still does not have a statewide, uniform building code, we applaud the tremendous progress toward making its buildings and citizens safer from severe weather and hurricanes.

Bolivar Peninsula, Texas, a few days after Hurricane Ike, September 2008


The Alabama state legislature, regulators, insurance industry and coastal communities have been very creative in coming up with solutions that make homes, businesses and communities stronger and safer.  

For example, Alabama has embraced the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety’s (IBHS) FORTIFIED superior construction standards. This effort has resulted in more resilient communities. FORTIFIED is a third-party verification program that uses a unique systems-based method for creating stronger, safer homes based on code-plus standards. IBHS’ FORTIFIED Home--Hurricane employs an incremental approach toward making new and existing homes more hurricane-resistant by offering three levels of designations – Bronze, Silver and Gold – so builders and contractors can work with homeowners to choose a desired level of protection that best suits their budgets and resilience goals. In fact, more than half of all FORTIFIED homes that have been designated to date are located in Alabama.

Communities prone to natural disasters, like those in Alabama, can benefit immensely from having stronger, safer buildings when future storms strike. Higher standards and better construction enable homeowners to repair instead of rebuild, businesses to return to operation quicker, and the need for fewer federal dollars for clean-up and reconstruction. 

Still, a decade after Katrina, some states remain more prepared than others. Alabama in particular has adopted several important measures to make coastal communities more resilient and is a model for other states to follow.  During the 2015 legislative season, the state enacted new laws that embrace IBHS’ FORTIFIED code-plus construction standards and provides incentives to homeowners that utilize them through insurance discounts. Additionally, some local jurisdictions are moving faster than the state, and are leading through entrepreneurial efforts like providing incentives such as building permit fee reductions for contractors utilizing FORTIFIED construction practices.      

Specifically, thanks to the efforts of a local nonprofit promoting resilience, Smart Home America, and receptive building officials and construction trades, Alabama has 12 coastal jurisdictions that have adopted IBHS’ FORTIFIED Home-Hurricane standards for new residential construction, including using ring shank nails to attach roof sheathing, sealing the roof deck, and other requirements. Most of these jurisdictions also require re-roofing projects to also include the re-fastening and sealing of the roof deck, and that the documentation of these components is provided.

Alabama is taking the lead among coastal states, but these steps are just the start. The state has the opportunity to make more progress adopting real-world solutions to ensure Alabama’s communities are even better prepared for future storms, leading to quicker recovery.  This includes the implementation of a uniform statewide building code to ensure residential and commercial buildings in all areas of the state are as strong and disaster-resistant as possible.

As long-time partners with disaster preparedness leaders all over Alabama, it is important to applaud the Alabama policymakers and regulators who continue to shine a bright light on this critical issue. We will continue our work with our partners to improve building standards and practices and perhaps, one day, enact a statewide building code. Improving the state’s resilience is possible when builders, insurers, regulators and residents work together to make homes and small businesses stronger and safer.           

Julie Rochman is president and CEO of the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS). Mark Pizzi is president and chief operating officer of Nationwide Direct and Member Solutions and is board chairman of IBHS.               

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