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Nonprofit organization rolls out plan for disaster-resistant homes in Tornado Alley

A new effort is underway to build more disaster-resistant homes in the central United States, an area more prone to tornadoes and severe weather.

The first FORTIFIED Home™ using "High Wind & Hail" standards will be built in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) announced in late March. The announcement came the day before tornadoes hit the Tulsa area on March 30.

State Farm gave $15,000 to Tulsa Partners, a nonprofit group working to promote a resilient, disaster-resistant community. Tulsa Habitat for Humanity received $3,000 of that money to help build a home to the new standards in the Kendall-Whittier area.

To have a community disaster-resistant requires that its housing be as strong as it can for area hazards, Tulsa Partners Executive Director Tim Lovell said.

"The IBHS FORTIFIED Home High Wind and Hail program does just that, and (IBHS) provides for third-party verification that the home meets the standard through certified evaluators," Lovell said.

The Tulsa area is one of the more prone areas for severe weather in Oklahoma. It has the seventh highest incidence of tornadoes in the state with 76 occurring between 1950-2014, the National Weather Service in Norman, Oklahoma, said.

In the U.S., only Texas, Kansas and Florida have more tornadoes a year than Oklahoma, the weather service reported.

The Tulsa area was hit by EF2 tornadoes (111 to 135 mph) on March 25, 2015, and again on March 30, 2016. About 400 buildings were damaged during the March 30 tornado, Tulsa Area Emergency Management Agency said.

"If the homes in the areas affected had FORTIFIED homes, we would not have had nearly as much damage," Lovell said.

While the housing-certification program is nationwide, the institute said it would focus on the Midwest and Great Plains areas, with a special concentration in Oklahoma and Colorado - two locations very vulnerable to high winds and hailstorms.

The central U.S. experiences some of the most frequent and destructive tornadoes on Earth, owing to the optimal clashing of air masses, AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions Senior Storm Warning Meteorologist Rich Putnam said.

"As warm and moisture-laden air streams northward from the Gulf of Mexico and meets cold air moving out of the Rockies, the stage is set for tornadoes, severe winds and large hail," Putnam said.

The FORTIFIED program uses a three-level approach - Bronze, Silver and Gold - toward making existing and new homes more resistant to damage from hurricanes, tropical storms, hailstorms, tornadoes and high winds and wind-driven rain associated with thunderstorms.

High winds are defined as locations where the building's design wind speed is equal to or less than 90 mph, or 115 mph, depending on the engineering standard used.

The Bronze level is the least invasive, involving the roof, and something that any homeowner could include when they replace their roof, Lovell said. Such a home will be built or retrofitted to minimize roof damage and associated property damage, disruption and loss from severe thunderstorms, hail, straight-line wind events and high winds at the edge of a weak tornado.

"Silver [level] covers porches, gables, carports and chimneys. Gold, the most invasive, would involve creating a continuous load path for the wind by making sure walls are tied down to foundations, and roof to walls," he said.

Garage doors, a very vulnerable house feature to wind pressure, are also included in the Gold level.

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The Gold level would be for new construction or an extensive remodel of an existing home, Lovell said. The home would be built or retrofitted in a way that minimizes property damage, disruption and loss expected during severe thunderstorms, hail, straight-line wind events, and high-intensity winds (EF1/weak EF2) at the edge of a tornado.

Groundbreaking on the new Habitat home, based on the Gold level, will occur early this summer.

"It is our belief that just because an individual or family may be financially challenged, they still need a safe, secure and quality home," Cameron Walker of Tulsa Habitat for Humanity said.

"Incorporating FORTIFIED home-building techniques in our homes makes a lot of sense given that we are in the heart of Tornado Alley. Strong homes create strong communities and instill hope in the minds of our homeowners," he added.