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New council lays groundwork for disaster response during first meeting

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The newly-formed Alabama Resilience Council, whose purpose is to help mitigate the effects of natural or man-made disasters through forming private-public partnerships, held its inaugural meeting Wednesday in Montgomery where industry and state leaders laid the groundwork for cooperation moving forward.

Save for establishing the new council’s bylaws, no actions were taken during the meeting. Members did discuss the value of disaster mitigation and floated ideas such as expanding grant programs to better fortify homes, or promoting private insurance programs over government ones.

Just hours prior to the meeting and 200 miles southeast, Hurricane Idalia made landfall on Florida’s Big Bend, something the council’s co-chair, Mark Fowler, noted as a reminder of the importance of being proactive in regards to disaster preparedness.

“Could we possibly have a better lesson of the importance of resilience than what’s happening right now?” Fowler said to the crowded room in the State Capitol. “Earlier this morning, a category 3 hurricane made landfall in our neighboring state of Florida; we pray that (they) will be safe, and that the loss of life and property will be a minimum.”

Alabama Department of Insurance Commissioner Mark Fowler.

The council was created in May through an executive order by Gov. Kay Ivey, who was present at the meeting to share words of encouragement.

“While there’s no way to stop a hurricane, we can develop a strategy to swiftly launch and direct resources and trained personnel to lessen the damage to lives, homes and communities,” Ivey said.

“Protecting the wellbeing of our people both physically and financially should be the top priority shared by leaders at all levels of government, so today, I call on you to both (look) to past disasters that challenged our state, and incorporate new strategies to better serve all Alabamians.”

Another responsibility of the council will be to develop a new hazard mitigation plan for the state, which Greg Robinson with the Alabama Emergency Management Agency told Alabama Daily News will help the state secure more federal funding for disaster relief.

“The hazard mitigation plan is important to the state because it gives us an opportunity to be able to take advantage of some federal dollars; if we don’t have it in place if we have a disaster, that’s federal dollars that we won’t be able to take advantage of,” Robinson said. “This council is going to help on the state level when it comes to producing that plan.”

Among the industry leaders invited to speak during the meeting was Roy Wright, who previously worked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and is the CEO of the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety. Wright spoke highly of one of the company’s programs known as Fortified, which equips existing or new construction buildings with stronger protections against severe weather and other natural disasters.

Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety CEO and president Roy Wright.

While more than 52,000 homes equipped with the Fortified level of protection exist across the country, the majority – about 42,000 – are in Alabama, largely thanks to the 2011 Strengthen Alabama Homes Act, which offers grants to eligible homeowners to retrofit their homes with the Fortified certification.

Wright said that a home with Fortified certification can withstand wind speeds as high as 135 mph through a process of fortifying a building’s roof, walls and foundation together. While not explicitly calling for the Strengthen Alabama grant program to be expanded, Wright stressed the value of the program from not only a safety perspective, but a financial one, and said that for every dollar invested in adopting similar building retrofits, the state saves $6 on recovery costs.

Alabama historically has had no shortage of natural disasters, and is tied for third nationally as having the most tornadoes per year, with 2,456 tornadoes recorded in the state since 1950, and 126 hurricanes since 1852.

That frequency of potential natural disasters, Wright said, was what made the state’s investment in the Fortified program so valuable.

“There is not another state in the union who has made this level of investment with state-only resources,” Wright said. “It shows the kind of ways by which when you bring elements of the building community, all the legislature, all the insurers, you can move these pieces forward.”

The Strengthen Alabama grant program, which is funded entirely by private insurance company fees and not the state’s General Fund, has seen roughly $63 million paid out to building and homeowners since its inception.

Following the meeting, Fowler, who is also the commissioner of the Alabama Department of Insurance, told ADN that the bulk of work the council will undertake is identifying what partnerships and strategies would work best at mitigating disasters. As far as specifics, Fowler suggested promoting the private sector over the government in certain scenarios may best mitigate future disasters.

“One thing we really want to do in Alabama that we’ve pushed in our department is trying to do things that can promote our private flood market and not just rely solely on the national flood insurance program,” Fowler said. 

“It’s a FEMA program – it’s a good program, and a lot of people have it in Alabama, but private industry can often do things better than government. We’ll be looking at all kinds of things like that, how we go about doing that, because government’s not always the answer. In fact, government is rarely the answer, but we can help encourage and spur that on.”

The council agreed during the meeting to meet once every 60 days, with the next meeting tentatively in late October.

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