The two twisters that hit Mobile County on Dec. 25 did not cause any deaths or injuries but did badly damage some historic structures, including Murphy High School (above) and Trinity Episcopal Church. In addition, the tornadoes damaged two dozen homes, leaving four families homeless, and downed more than 2,000 trees. The weather erupted days after a less severe tornado damaged parts of the county. (Press-Register file photo)

Original Article Posted by - By Michael Finch II - December 4, 2013

MOBILE, Alabama -- Much attention has been paid to the cost of property insurance along the Gulf Coast, the sky-high premiums and deductibles most homeowners cannot afford.

Industry leaders met Wednesday to discuss one of the solutions: home fortification.

The concern of property owners, insurance agents and home builders should be focused on an emerging standard for building and upgrading homes called FORTIFIED, a group of speakers said at a symposium at the Battle House Renaissance Hotel and Spa.

“It’s not just about insurance — it’s about making sure that our community is still here in the next storm,” said Alex Cary, executive director of Smart Home America, a nonprofit that promotes building homes to withstand natural disasters. “If you’ve been through Mississippi after Katrina, they don’t have community in some of those places. We don’t want that to happen in Alabama.”

The goal outlined at the forum, which was organized by Smart Home America and the Coastal Alabama Partnership, is to have residents of Mobile and Baldwin Counties improve the quality of their home’s construction to one of three standards -- Bronze, Silver and Gold -- codified by the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety.

The upgrade, which often costs more money up front, pays off in the long term, officials said. Premium prices could fall by as much as 60 percent for a residence with gold-level certification when a state regulation goes into effect in July 2014. Less lucrative, but significant savings can still be achieved today.

Improving the roof of a home is the surefire way for homeowners to reap savings. But seldom is that the case, Carey said. “Although we have discounts in the state of Alabama -- mandated discounts for insurance, a lot of agents are not as familiar with the FORTIFIED program and they should be doing when they get an application.”

Educating the many homeowners, insurance agents and building contractors is key. The state Department of Insurance is administering a program which offers grants for retrofitting homes in the region.

Financially backed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Strengthen Alabama Homes pilot program has already attracted 461 applicants for about 120 slots, Deputy Insurance Commissioner Charles Angell said.

The program does not include condominiums, mobile homes or businesses. “We’re just trying to get to the people that has the most effect in terms of resiliency and being able to stay in their homes after a hurricane first,” Angell said.

But officials expect a $100 million surge in RESTORE Act funding from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to boost that number to 22,000 residences. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley has vowed to put funding toward the program.

In the meantime, the Department of Homeland Security has launched a program to carry the same message as IBHS called Resilience Star. The project will focus on Alabama, which currently leads the nation in the number of FORTIFIED homes, said Matt Fuchs, deputy director of resilience policy.

The initiative aims to further encourage stakeholders across the country to build according to the IBHS standards.

“The problem is pretty easy to identify; there is a tremendous amount of risk out there,” Fuchs said. One-fifth of the agency’s mission is to “ensure resilience to disasters,” which has mostly focused on prevention.

“That really represents a shift for us from trying to prevent disasters, we still will do that to the extent that we are able to,” Fuchs said. “There is a level of pragmatism that disasters are going to happen; we need to plan for and mitigate against (them) assuming that some are going to happen — especially natural disasters.”

Original Article here.