Twenty years ago, Hurricane Andrew made landfall in South Florida in the middle of the night of Aug. 24. When residents from Key Largo to North Miami walked outside their homes the next morning, they gasped at a level of devastation that had never been seen before.
Much has changed since then in Florida and around the nation. We have made great progress in the past 20 years to strengthen our coastal areas against the unstoppable reality of hurricanes. But we cannot become complacent simply because time has allowed memories to fade.
Mitigating the damage of natural disasters and, in some cases, actually preventing damages, is a proven money-saver. A 2005 study by the National Institute of Building Sciences found that, on average, a dollar spent by FEMA on hazard mitigation saves the nation $4 in future benefits. We believe the savings for property owners are even greater.
There are three fundamental building blocks to improved mitigation:
• Stronger building codes. The creation of the International Code Council in 1994 gave us a single entity to draft model building codes that can be, and are, used as guidelines for local codes worldwide. Stronger building codes help drive the creation, and adoption, of better building products and practices. Alabama, for instance, this year adopted its first-ever statewide residential code.
Many hurricane-exposed states, unfortunately, still are lagging. Alarmingly, there have been efforts to weaken building codes in some states.
An Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) study last December found that, on a 100-point scale, only seven of 18 coastal states scored higher than 80 points when ranked for “strong statewide residential building codes and comprehensive regulatory processes for the building code officials, contractors, and subcontractors, who translate building code requirements into actual homes.” Bottom of the pack? Mississippi, Delaware and Texas.
• Incentives, both public and private. Financial incentives work wonders in improving mitigation and reducing losses. Florida, for instance, has the nation’s most robust system of insurance incentives. Residents are supposed to receive a significant discount off of hurricane insurance if their homes were built after 2002 under the newer Florida Building Code.
Older homes also can get credits for mitigation features ranging from storm shutters, water barriers and impact doors and windows. Insurers are required by law to provide mitigation incentives in Florida, Louisiana and Maryland. Incentives are voluntarily offered in Alabama, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island and South Carolina.
But we need more incentives. Local governments should consider property-tax relief for homeowners who invest in mitigation. Governments also should waive taxes and fees on specific mitigation work, such as shutter installations. Sales-tax holidays could be implemented for all hurricane-protective devices. None of these efforts are particularly onerous, but provide the incentives to promote action.
• Education about mitigation and prevention. Understanding the positive impact of mitigation and damage prevention remains the biggest challenge to our efforts. People lose their lives because they either don’t know or underestimate the dangers of natural disasters. While the media have done an exemplary job of providing useful tips in advance of storms, there is so much more to do. A troubling example: Nearly seven of 10 homeowners think masking tape on windows somehow will help prevent damage, according to a Harris Interactive survey this year. It doesn’t.
Massive losses to the insurance industry from Andrew, Katrina and other storms have resulted in more homeowners being forced to turn to government-backed “insurers of last resort’’ for coverage. That means we increasingly are placing these risks on our own pocketbooks.
Again, we have made great progress. But by no means are we as safe as we can be.
Leslie Chapman-Henderson is President and CEO of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH).