Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The need for disaster-resistant housing becomes tragically clear

by Janet Viveiros, Center for Housing Policy

A home in Union Beach, N.J., destroyed by
Hurricane Sandy. Credit: iStockphoto
In light of the deaths and destruction caused by the tornado in Moore, Okla., yesterday, as well as the tornadoes in Texas and Oklahoma this past week, the need to build disaster-resistant housing is clear. As the disturbing images of damage caused by the tornadoes remind us, many households across the country are very vulnerable to natural disasters. In addition to offering assistance to the victims of these tornadoes, moving forward we must also look at how we can reduce this loss of life and widespread devastation in the future.

I recently attended the Build It Better Leadership Forum which brought together leaders of various industries to discuss how we can “build it better” to improve the safety and resiliency of buildings and communities in the face of hurricanes like Hurricane Sandy. While the focus of the forum was on hurricane risks, the lessons about the importance of sound construction techniques and disaster preparedness are applicable to any natural disaster. One major challenge mentioned several times during the forum was how to effectively educate and make resources available to help homeowners and property owners improve the safety of homes before disaster strikes.

Several organizations and states are actively looking at ways to improve home safety through better construction of new houses, and retrofits of older houses. The Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH) is a no-profit consumer advocate for disaster resistant housing. The organization provides information to consumers and builders about ways to construct or retrofit homes to better withstand various natural disasters. This includes detailed designs and estimated costs of safe rooms which offer greater protection to families and individuals sheltering in their home during a tornado or storm with high winds.

Improving the safety and resiliency of a home is a concern for all households. However, low- and moderate-income households have fewer resources available to invest in disaster resistance retrofit projects for their homes. Low-income individuals are often the least able to prepare for and respond to the damaging impacts of natural disasters. It is important that state and local governments, as well as local non-profits, examine ways to make disaster retrofit projects affordable to low- and moderate-income households.

One state that has taken the lead in this area is South Carolina. The South Carolina Safe Home program offers grants and matching funds to low- and moderate-income homeowners in coastal counties to complete retrofits on their homes to mitigate damage from severe storms like hurricanes. The mitigation measures also make homeowners eligible for discounts on homeowner insurance policies. These incentives are just one way to help low- and moderate-income households to make their homes safer. All states and local governments should examine the risks that their communities face, as well as the special needs of vulnerable populations and low- and moderate-income households, and then develop strategies to help all households prepare before a disaster.

My thoughts are with all those impacted by the tornadoes this week.

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