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."