Building codes differ by state and are enforced by local communities. This has led to inconsistencies in the ability for structures to withstand property damage from natural disasters. In response, the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) developed FORTIFIED Home™ in 2010 to create a uniform, hazard-specific standard designed to make new homes more resistant to damage from hurricanes, tropical storms, hailstorms, high winds and wind-driven rain.
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"We see firsthand the toll that natural disasters take on families who lose their homes," says Eric Nelson, Travelers Senior Vice President of Enterprise Catastrophe Strategy & Analysis, who also serves on the board of IBHS. "FORTIFIED has the potential to save lives, reduce long-term costs, make communities more resilient and make insurance more affordable in disaster-prone areas where it typically costs more."
Travelers provided training and funding for the construction of five FORTIFIED homes built in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Greater New Haven, in coastal Connecticut, an area hit hard by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The homes are built to the FORTIFIED Gold standard, which is designed to minimize loss from a Category 3 hurricane.
"At Habitat, we take it very seriously that we're working with homeowners who may only have this one shot at owning a home," said Bill Casey, Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity of Greater New Haven. "They're low-income working families. We were excited to show people that you can make a FORTIFIED house without breaking the bank." After seeing the results, Casey has committed building all future Habitat homes in Greater New Haven to the FORTIFIED standard.
Making a few important changes to how homes are built can help them better withstand storms without significantly adding to building costs, the partnership between Travelers, Habitat for Humanity and the IBHS shows.
Building to the FORTIFIED Gold standard has only added 4-5% to the total construction cost, Nelson says, describing how covering the gaps between plywood with tape costs less than $500 but can be valuable even in low-level storms, helping to prevent the roof cover from blowing off.
With half of the population of the United States now living within 50 miles of the coast, the scale of potential damage from natural disasters has changed, according to Nelson. If a Category 3 hurricane hit the metro New York area, it would cost approximately $100 billion in insured losses, with economic losses of $200-300 billion, says Nelson.
"Many communities have begun to prepare, but many have not," Nelson says. "We have to understand the challenges that are out there and what we can do to make communities more resilient."
The New Haven homes are part of a larger initiative, Travelers Fortifies Homes, for which IBHS, Habitat for Humanity and Travelers have partnered to demonstrate the importance of building safer homes. Marlene Ibsen, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Travelers Foundation, says the partnership was a natural fit for Travelers and a chance to leverage industry experience in how homes hold up in severe storms. "We've been very pleased that our partnership with IBHS and Habitat has shown that it is both affordable and practical to build FORTIFIED Habitat homes in coastal areas," adds Ibsen.
Since 2012, Travelers employees have participated in the building of 205 Habitat for Humanity homes across the country, supported with $2.7 million in grants from Travelers Foundation. In 2017, Travelers will provide support for nearly 50 projects with 1,500 employees logging 10,000 hours painting, hanging cabinets, installing drywall and performing other volunteer tasks alongside the future homeowners, who provide "sweat equity" before receiving their new home.
Volunteering at a FORTIFIED home has added meaning, says Bruce Stickley, who works in Travelers Enterprise Catastrophe Strategy & Analysis and regularly volunteers with Habitat for Humanity. "We know there are ways to make buildings better," Stickley says. "We've learned it, so let's prove it."