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Why hurricane-resistant homes aren't constructed, bought more frequently

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer
August 09, 2018, 8:13:42 AM EDT

Last year was the United States’ most costly on record for weather-related disasters, with damages in 2017 totaling a staggering $306 billion, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Even as Atlantic hurricanes intensify more rapidly than compared with storms from three decades ago and as building codes improve, not all homes in hurricane-prone areas are being constructed to withstand these increasingly powerful forces of nature.

“There’s just a lot of resistance from people to doing things differently and [in a way] that might have higher initial upfront costs,” said Jeremy Gregory, research scientist and executive director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Concrete Sustainability Hub.

It could cost 15 percent more to build a home with a sturdier, concrete frame rather than one constructed from wood, according to experts.

Hurricane-resistant home development does exist, however. Architects and engineers have designed homes built to handle flooding and hurricane-force winds. Stronger building materials, including ultra-high-performance concrete and bendable glass, are also being researched and utilized in some structures, but these types of innovations are currently not widespread, with primarily wealthy homeowners opting for these types of upgrades.

Hurricane Harvey flooding 2017 - AP Image

A home is surrounded by floodwaters from Harvey on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Spring, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

“I think that people have a hard time evaluating risks and adapting to those risks,” Gregory told AccuWeather. “It’s easy to say, ‘That was a bad storm, but what are the chances it’ll happen again?’. The reality is that we as humans are not really good with that kind of risk assessment.”

One of the key reasons that more hurricane-proof structures aren’t being built is that there isn’t a large market demand for them, according to Gregory.

“Developers will respond to market demand,” he said. It’s often the developer who makes the design decisions for buildings rather than the building’s owner, he added. “If there’s market demand from people saying, ‘yeah, I’m willing to make that higher upfront investment because I understand what those longer-term benefits are,’ they’ll respond to that and they’ll gladly build to that.”

“Right now, it’s just that building owners don’t know to ask for [these changes], and even if they do, by the time decisions are already made, that opportunity is lost,” Gregory said. “What we really need to change is to make more information available to the building owners so they can then ask developers to incorporate them.”

In March 2018, the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) released “Rating the States,” a report on the residential building code systems in 18 hurricane-prone states, including Florida, New York, Georgia and Texas.

Comparing results to its 2015 report, the IBHS found that many, but not all, states have enacted and enforced strong and effective building codes.

“Unfortunately, many states took no action to improve their code systems, and a few have weaker systems in place now than they had in 2015,” IBHS CEO and President Julie Rochman said in a press release.

Building codes in Florida, which was impacted by Hurricane Irma in 2017, ranked highest in the report, with a score of 95 out of 100. Texas, which was battered by Hurricane Harvey last year, ranked lower on the list at number 15 out of the 18 states with a score of 34 – a 2-percent drop from IBHS’s 2015 report.

IBHS offers the Fortified Home program. Its construction standards and methods allow homeowners to protect their homes from hurricanes, severe thunderstorms, high winds and other severe weather conditions.

Since the program’s inception in 2008, only 8,126 homes in the U.S. are Fortified-built, according to a recent Bloomberg article, which also cites a 2017 Census Bureau report that a mere 8 percent of about 800,000 single-family homes built last year were constructed with concrete frames.

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Gregory explained, however, that even homes constructed with wood can be built in a hazard-resistant manner.

“It usually means you have strong reinforcements of the wood structure; for instance, the kind of connections you use between the roof and walls are specifically made to withstand a hurricane's impacts,” Gregory said.

“It also means that you might use larger wood beams than you normally would in a conventional-type structure. It then gets to a point where you have to look at what’s more cost-effective," he added.

Severe weather conditions are nothing new and aren't going anywhere anytime soon, according to Rochman. "But what can and must stop is the continued construction and inevitable destruction of weak, vulnerable homes built – and too often rebuilt – in questionable locations,” Rochman said.

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