A new home under construction in coastal Alabama, being built to modern storm resilience standards.

Photo by Emily Nonko

What Alabama Can Teach You about Storm Resilience

How community organizing, the insurance industry and state policy changes came together to make coastal Alabama a leader in weather-resilient home construction.

Story by Emily Nonko

Published on

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Leaning back in an office chair, in a nondescript meeting room of the Schneider Insurance Agency, in Mobile, Alabama, Carl Schneider tells me one of his many stories of family members, neighbors, and clients surviving a hurricane. His family has run the business since 1959. As an Alabama born-and-bred insurance agent, Schneider may seem the least likely spokesperson for a grassroots movement in building resiliency.

Just over the state line, in Biloxi, Mississippi, Schneider tells me, a cousin of his decided to stick out Hurricane Katrina at his property, five miles inland. The cousin and his Labrador were nearly trapped on top of the kitchen counter inside the house as the whole thing came crashing down. An ice chest full of beer floated by, and they latched on to that escape raft, according to Schneider.

When Schneider visited his cousin’s destroyed home the following day, he had a realization: “If I would have been their insurance agent I would have failed them,” he says. “Why? Because I would have never expected the wind or water to get that high, and as a professional I would have never really told them they needed to buy insurance … Because I was given bad information from the federal government, and I didn’t know the true risk was here.”

Since 1968, the federally-backed National Flood Insurance Program has been the nation’s flood insurance provider, formed after the government realized it was too difficult for private companies to insure flood risk at rates homeowners could afford. Flood insurance is required for any federally-backed mortgage in a flood zone — and the government maps those zones.

The government’s mapping, Schneider believes, underestimates “worst case” devastation from hurricanes, which not only bring flooding, but storm surge and wind. It leaves homeowners such as Schneider’s cousin believing they are not at risk.

It has also become painfully clear the National Flood Insurance Program wasn’t calibrated for this era of superstorms. In the wake of Katrina and Sandy, the program fell into billions of dollars of debt, with premiums hiked up to get it out of the red. (After the devastating storms of 2017, the Trump administration forgave $16 billion of the NFIP’s debt, and made some needed changes to the program, like loosening restrictions on insurance companies that want to offer their own flood coverage.)

Private insurers cover everything beyond flooding, but policies vary across states and carriers and things only get complicated after a hurricane. In some coastal areas, wind is excluded and must be insured separately. Some policies include a clause that when a covered and non-covered event happen at the same time, neither is covered—an issue after a storm like Katrina, which included both winds and flooding. And insurers many not cover the full cost of rebuilding a home as it was before the storm or to higher code standards.

In Alabama after Katrina, private insurers hiked up homeowner’s insurance rates, or left the area altogether. Schneider says that thousands of people lost coverage. Insurance companies across the country also began charging a “hurricane deductible” for when a hurricane does occur, allowing insurers to offload thousands of dollars of damage costs onto consumers.

Schneider draws a through line from that day after Katrina to his leadership role in resilience today. “At that point in time, my life changed,” he states. “That’s when I went from being an insurance agent selling policies to an advocate that’s there to protect the community.”

Over the next decade, Schneider came together with others in his community, his state, and his industry to retool the home building and homeowner insurance markets in coastal Alabama, only this time with modern-day standards for weather resilience.

“It took five years just to learn how to spell resilience,” says Schneider. “Then another five years to understand what did it mean to build to these standards.”

Toward More Resilient Building Codes

How to make a community resilient is a tough question following any major environmental devastation. As climate change promises more frequent and intense hurricanes, alongside sharply rising recovery costs, the question has never been more pertinent.

In coastal Alabama, specifically in Mobile and Baldwin counties, communities acknowledged the need to determine what resilience means to them, then set out on the long, complicated and ongoing road to achieve it. A 2011 white paper on resilience, written by the Coastal Recovery Commission of Alabama, begins with 14 pages of names — more than 600 people — who served on the commission.

As the insurance industry in coastal Alabama reacted in fear of another hurricane, and rapidly rising insurance costs gobsmacked homeowners, Schneider realized something was missing. There weren’t incentives — or even a framework — for insurers and homeowners to rebuild homes to higher code standards for the next storm. It’s a problem that’s played out from Alabama to New York.

After Katrina, the problem crystallized for Schneider: “This is why we failed, this is why we had so many deaths, so much property damage. We were building to a lower standard that was [the] acceptable standard at that time.” The next question, he says, is “how should we be rebuilding?”

He’s not just talking about Alabama. “How should Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Virgin Islands, Key West build back?” says Schneider. “Should we build back cheap, and let it blow away again, or should we build it up, or not build back at all?”

Schneider believes it’s a decision every community should make for itself. To that end, in 2009, he founded a nonprofit, Smart Home Alabama, with some of his own money and a grant from the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, a federal/state partnership. He wanted to introduce a framework for a community who “couldn’t spell resilience” to eventually embrace it.

Schneider wanted insurance agents and local builders to start talking. If builders constructed resilient buildings that could withstand more damage, and insurance companies agreed to reduce premiums for more weather-resilient homes, it would incentivize resiliency for homeowners. Code officials had to be part of the conversation too, because new building standards only work if they’re enforced. Homeowners would need education on rebuilding differently, given that, as Schneider puts it, “their daddy and grandaddy built the same way for a hundred years.” And for residents who couldn’t afford to build a new resilient home, resources were necessary to retrofit the homes they had.

The political climate was tricky to navigate. Federal funding for hurricane recovery, Schneider felt, came with too much red tape, stipulations, and delays. As for rebuilding standards, the U.S. has no mandatory national building code, so each state and locality adopted its own. Alabama, however, has declined to set a statewide building code. And because the state has a relatively small coastal population, Baldwin and Mobile counties discovered they didn’t have enough political clout to enact building-code changes at the state level.

“There was a realization that if we couldn’t get it done at the state level, we’d have to get it done at the local level,” says Lannie Smith, a building inspector who, with Schneider, asked state legislature to consider a coastal code-building supplement. “They were not interested in that,” Smith says, “at all.”

Coastal counties had long ago enacted their own building codes in the absence of a statewide code, but after Katrina it was clear those codes did not produce buildings that could sufficiently withstand the flooding, wind and storm surge of “worst case” hurricanes. The purpose of Smart Home Alabama was to push for rebuilding at a higher standard. For that, Schneider and Smith turned to the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety.

Inside the Natural-Disaster Laboratory

Chester County, S.C., is home to a hulking concrete test facility on 90 acres of land. Inside the test facility’s cavernous warehouse space sits a modest but life-sized ranch home, complete with trash bins and outdoor patio set, in the middle of a circle painted on the concrete floor. In a seemingly post-apocalyptic scene, the empty house is waiting to be engulfed in flames, hit by a windstorm, or pelted with hail.

The test chamber, six stories tall and roughly the size of four and a half basketball courts, was designed to recreate a variety of natural disasters. An enormous wall of 105 fans — each nearly six feet in diameter — can simulate Category 1, 2, and 3 hurricanes (with winds up to 130 mph), extra-tropical windstorms, wind-driven rain conditions and straight-line windstorms.

This IBHS video details some of the building improvements that reflect Fortified standards, as a safeguard against wind-related storm damage.

This facility, owned and operated by the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, is the only lab in the world that tests full-scale buildings in controlled and repeatable environmental disasters. Nearby, in a smaller lab, individual components of construction materials are studied using additional disaster-replicating experiments.

The lab is part of a major post-Katrina investment by the institute, founded in 1978 as an independent, nonprofit research organization funded by property insurance and reinsurance companies. Research conducted at the lab eventually resulted in a building standards program, dubbed Fortified, coupled with a third-party certification process.

Fortified standards come in three designations: bronze, which focuses on reinforcement of the roof, seen as the first line of defense against a storm; silver, which incorporates the same roof improvements and adds enhanced window and door protections; and finally gold, which includes “augmented structural protections” from the roof to the walls, to the foundation. In addition to guiding homeowners, builders, engineers and architects, the designations offer insurance companies benchmarks from which to assess risk.

“It’s in the best interest of the insurance industry to provide guidance on how to build safer and stronger homes,” says Julie Rochman, the institute’s outgoing chief executive. And because it’s funded by the industry, she adds, it’s hard for insurers to ignore their science.

The work done at the lab marks serious progress for the insurance industry’s challenge in measuring environmental risk. The research, Rochman notes, measure the effect of specific environmental disasters alongside the specific ways buildings perform under various conditions. Passing along the research is akin to “handing communities a road map” to build better buildings, she says.

Alabama’s coastal counties wanted that road map — sparking a first-of-its-kind local partnership for the institute. “I read [the institute’s] research and engineering documents and realized this was really what we were looking for,” says Smith.

A Fortified Coalition Comes Together

Smart Home Alabama finally gained some traction at the state level — between 2009 and 2014, the Alabama state legislature and the state Department of Insurance implemented measures mandating that insurance carriers provide homeowner insurance premium discounts of as much as 50 percent to residents who build homes to Fortified standards.

With insurance incentives in place, Smart Home Alabama still had to convince residents of Fortified’s building potential. Anticipating the higher cost of resilient construction would be a major concern, the organization decided to build its first Fortified-standard homes with Habitat for Humanity.

Under a pilot program funded by the Allstate Foundation, Smart Home Alabama brought together Habitat for Humanity’s local chapter and the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety. In addition to building the weather-resilient homes, the pilot program also had the goal of teaching local insurance agents about Fortified-standard construction methods through volunteering on rebuilding homes with Habitat. Volunteers received an interactive tour of a Fortified-standard home under construction to understand how the method is put into practice. They were put to work installing hurricane straps and caulking seams for energy efficiency. Open houses were offered at completed projects to show off the finished homes.

The greatest benefit, of course, was with the eventual homeowner. “For low-income people who are more vulnerable than most, it was a no-brainer to improve construction in a way that could reduce their insurance rates,” says Alex Cary, formerly with Habitat for Humanity and now manager of fortified coastal programs at the Insurance Institute. And, “we showed that if we can do it with Habitat, anybody can do it,” she says.

At a Habitat for Humanity event in Mobile, Alabama, a volunteer reinforces a roof with metal brackets to keep it anchored to the main structure — one of the key structural improvements that reinforces a home to Fortified standards. (Credit: Smart Home America)

The state got more active in 2015, founding the Alabama Center for Insurance Information and Research to “make good information available and to address the problem of price increases in insurance,” says Director Lawrence Powell. Paying extra to retrofit or rebuilt homes can be a hard sell to homeowners. “It’s not something you can see, like granite countertops,” says Powell. To combat this mindset, the center threw itself into data analysis.

“We were able to estimate how the Fortified designation affects the resale value of a home,” Powell says, adding that Fortified-standard homes sell for approximately a seven percent premium. “There’s psychology in that, that people make decisions and want to see an instant effect.”

Still, proponents of Fortified faced significant pushback. Homeowners and builders were resistant to change and raised construction costs, even though insurance analysts say it adds no more than three percent to a home’s price tag. Plywood, a typical material used in the area for storm-proofing, isn’t allowed by Fortified. “It was the cheapest way, and the method of choice,” says Smith. “But we had to go and say plywood wasn’t good enough.”

Fortified’s third-party enforcement requirement also “scared people to death,” says Smith, as it added an extra step, and therefore another cost, to construction.

“People weren’t getting [homes] certified because they wouldn’t spend the money on the third-party inspector,” says Smith, who oversees code in the town of Orange Beach, in Baldwin County. The solution, once again, was incentives. In Orange Beach, Smith says, when a homeowner receives a Fortified designation, they became eligible for a rebate program that paid back 25 percent of their building permit fees.

Incentives were coupled with what Hank Hodde, a resilience outreach specialist with the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, calls “persistent engagement” — a term you hear often from Fortified advocates. The consortium has done research and outreach around the Gulf Coast since 1972. The group worked with Smart Home Alabama and the Insurance Institute to educate local officials, homeowners, builders, realtors and insurance agents, often in town hall-type settings. “This conversation sparks them in different ways, and we gain their interest in different talking points and solutions,” Hodde says.

Resilience efforts are often siloed, Hodde notes, and meetings with different parties in the room “knocked down those barriers.” Hodde calls it “resilience based on community.” He says, “it’s enabled us to connect the dots, get the right people in the room, and build trust.”

Another major need advocates identified in this process: reaching lower-income homeowners. Smart Home Alabama again worked with the state Department of Insurance, this time to increase licensing fees for state insurers — creating a dedicated funding stream for a grant program known as Strengthen Alabama Homes. More funding came from the Alabama Insurance Underwriters Association, which donated $2 million per year over two years.

Open to Mobile and Baldwin County residents, regardless of income or insurer, Strengthen Alabama Homes provided grants up to $10,000, estimated as the average cost for weather resilience improvements. The one requirement: homeowners must upgrade their existing home to a Fortified standard.

To reach low-income residents across the coast, Strengthen Alabama Homes Director Brian Powell forged two partnerships: one in Africatown, a community outside Mobile that can trace its history to the last illegal slave ship to arrive in the United States, and another with the Baldwin County Chapter of Habitat for Humanity.

In Africatown, the Africatown Community Development Corporation formed roughly 20 years ago in response to economic distress in the area, and has since spearheaded everything from a tourism center to an open-air market. Strengthen Alabama Homes provided the group a grant to develop a retrofitting program to make resilience improvements to the area’s housing stock, which mostly consists of modest shotgun houses built before 1965, although some date back to the early 20th century. The partnership with Africatown Community Development Corporation helped foster relationships with residents who were skeptical of government assistance.

With Habitat for Humanity, the organization had already integrated Fortified in new construction projects. The grant from Strengthen Alabama Homes, however, went to retrofit roofs on existing Habitat homes so that they met Fortified standards.

“In order to be a part of this program, you have to carry insurance,” says Lori Mader, finance director for Baldwin Habitat. “So now, not only are they getting a new roof or retrofitting to sustain these storms, they’re carrying insurance when before they couldn’t afford to carry it.”

After a hurricane, Mader notes, insurance can be the difference between being able to afford to rebuild a house or being wiped out with nowhere to go.

Starting from what Schneider calls a “little bitty seed of an idea,” the combined efforts of Smart Home Alabama, the Insurance Institute, Habitat for Humanity and the various Alabama state agencies stands as the only such collective in the country to systematically implement Fortified standards into local building markets and practices. Alabama remains the only state in the country to hinge Fortified construction on a required discount from insurance companies.

As of this April, according to Cary, there are 8,270 Fortified-standard homes in the U.S. As a result of Alabama’s collective efforts, 7,000 of those homes are located within the state.

Getting the Word out, in Alabama and beyond

Early this year, on a warm day in mid-January, construction was underway on a plot of land facing the waterfront. A succession of docks extended out atop the shimmery blue waters of Mobile Bay. The appeal of the Gulf Coast was on full display.

The site’s home builder, Mike Henriksen, previously worked as an insurance adjuster and saw his own home damaged by Ivan and destroyed by Katrina. “The flood work I’ve done in the past hit home, because I’ve suffered,” he says. “In writing insurance claims for a few thousand homes, it was quite evident the homes were damaged because they weren’t high enough or built substantially enough to withstand wind and flood.”

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Alabama coast with sustained hurricane-force winds and a storm surge of 10 to 15 feet around Mobile County. At the time, building codes did not sufficiently strengthen area structures against the flood and wind damage caused by hurricanes. (Photo by Mel Silvers via Flickr)

He began speaking with engineers, he says, “to try and come up with a better way to build a home.” He then worked closely with an engineer to rebuild his own home. In 2006, he received his home builders license, and soon after met Schneider.

Today, Henriksen builds to Fortified standards on every project. To do so, he works closely with an engineer, insurance agent and home designer. Conversations with clients, he says, start early. “We meet each client as a team, all four of us, so we can explain how we build, and the insurance guy can explain that even though the cost of building a home is higher, the insurance is less expensive,” says Henriksen.

Henriksen says that when he first adopted Fortified, he spent an extraordinary amount of time explaining it to potential homeowners. Now, he says, “I still sometimes do that, but the public seems to be getting more and more educated.” And as more clients realize the construction strength, waterfront stretches where people kept vacation homes now attract more full-time residents.

The home under construction sat atop 30-foot-tall pilings (roughly 20 of those feet are underground); the appearance of a house on stilts belied the structure’s incredible strength. Henriksen knew this construction process like the back of his hand, from testing soil to determine how deep to install the pilings, to the strength of the steel beam structure, to the use of impact glass, which nicely framed waterfront views.

Construction recently wrapped, and it’s a home insurance agencies will compete to cover, says Schneider. “Build it right and they will come,” is his attitude, and he’s seen that local insurance companies want to cover Fortified homes. That, to Schneider, is a sign of success in a coastal area that many insurance companies fled after Katrina.

On either side of the newly-built house on stilts sit two modest homes only elevated a few feet above the ground. Henriksen mentions it may not be until the next major flood that the owners look to rebuild more resiliently.

It shows there’s still work to be done, from rebuilding along the coast to retrofitting homes further inland. Last year, Strengthen Alabama Homes had to suspend its grant program because of overwhelming demand; the program officially launched in September 2016, and by January 2017 they had amassed nearly 9,000 applications, says Powell. “We’ve exceeded our annual funding, based on the applications that have come in, for about another year,” he says.

The program has set a goal of raising $500 million over the next 20 years and plans to continue tapping into local, private funding sources. A fundraising team is expanding from the insurance industry to local employers, like the large manufacturers and ports in the area, to “buy into” the program, according to Powell. “If [those companies] can help fund and get their employees’ homes mitigated, it helps them to stay in place after the storm and go back to work much quicker,” he says.

“If we can mitigate between 30,000 and 50,000 homes in Mobile and Baldwin County,” says Powell, “That would be sufficient to start changing the structure of the economy when we start looking at the price of insurance and effects of resiliency.”

Smart Home Alabama ultimately believes its model can be replicated. The organization has since changed its name to Smart Home America and now operates in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Rhode Island. This past November, Smart Home America announced the Allstate Foundation would continue to fund its Habitat for Humanity and Fortified pilot program in Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

Smart Home America’s current chief executive, Julie Shiyou-Woodard, has spent much of this year organizing in communities struggling to recover from last year’s storms. In Coastal Texas — which also lacks a statewide building code — similar debates have cropped up in which officials and residents are calling for better building standards, while others fear such requirements would financially burden homeowners.

At least one Texas city, Rockport, is considering widely rolling out the Fortified program in hopes to rebuild stronger and create more insurance options for homeowners.

“Alabama has really been the leader,” says Rochman. “We’re holding them up as the proof point that Fortified homes are a solid investment.”

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Emily Nonko is a social justice and solutions-oriented reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers a range of topics for Next City, including arts and culture, housing, movement building and transit. 

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