Habitat for Humanity builds homes meant to survive Oklahoma storms 

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There’s a moment of pure joy that every homeowner experiences when they hold their house key for the first time.

After investing hundreds of hours of sweat equity, the dreams of homeownership, along with providing Habitat for Humanity families safe and stable dwellings, are finally a reality.

As Central Oklahoma Habitat for Humanity’s construction manager for 20 years, Aaron McRee has shared that joyous moment with more than 800 metro-area families. The Habitat affiliate’s mission is to provide services that empower limited-income families to build brighter futures through affordable homeownership.

In January, the ecumenical Christian nonprofit’s commitment accelerated. McRee leads volunteers in Blanchard’s Shellibrook and northwest OKC’s Legacy Estates neighborhoods through recently established Fortified Home construction standards to produce homes built to better withstand natural disasters, including wind speeds of up to 135 mph.

“We put a lot of extra effort from the foundation to the walls to the roof,” McRee said as he walked through the first Fortified Home completed in Blanchard by Central Oklahoma Habitat for Humanity, an affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International.

McRee explained the single-family house was built to meet the Fortified Home High Wind and Hail Gold Standard, which adopts a “continuous load path” construction method. Through a system of wood, metal connectors, fasteners and shearwalls, all parts of the house — roof, walls, floors and foundation — are connected, meaning the structure is fortified by its own construction, which essentially protects the home from blowing apart during disastrous weather events. The method is critical to significantly reducing the amount of damage sustained during a tornado, which could mean the difference between a home that is repairable versus a total loss.

“A lot of extra work and a lot of extra beef goes into these homes,” McRee said. “There is a lot of nailing. There are a lot of people with sore arms on these builds.”

The Sooner state averages 69 tornadoes a year, according to the Oklahoma Department of Insurance. While the vast majority of them are weak, the weather events that produce them also can create heavy winds, rain, hail and lightning, which also can cause significant damage to buildings.

With the advent of new techniques, Habitat for Humanity affiliates began to deploy Fortified Home standards into their builds, producing durable homes in areas susceptible to flooding, earthquakes, hurricanes, severe thunderstorms and winds. A year ago, at the National Tornado Summit in Oklahoma City, the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) launched its Fortified Home High Wind and Hail program, providing standards to improve a “home’s resilience by adding system-specific upgrades to minimum code requirements,” according to IBHS, an independent nonprofit funded by property insurers and reinsurers dedicated to identifying and promoting scientifically sound methods to protect homes and businesses against significant property damage.

The standards go “above and beyond building codes for high wind events,” said Alex Cary, who oversees IBHS’ Fortified program. They can be adopted by any builder. In April 2016, Habitat for Humanity International took the lead through a program called Habitat Strong. The initiative with IBHS promotes the standards to 83 Habitat affiliates, including those in central Oklahoma.

The initiative is a practical one based on Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) research showing low- to moderate-income families and communities often suffer disproportionately, as they have far fewer financial resources to prepare for, prevent damage from or recover after natural disasters strike.

“Families who have incomes just a little lower than most of the population are at a disadvantage when it comes to natural disasters,” Cary said when visiting the Blanchard home during an opening ceremony. “When their homes are destroyed, it is much more difficult to rebuild and recover. When Habitat affiliates take these steps and help families by building stronger homes, the family home is much more likely to survive low-level tornados.”

According to the Oklahoma Department of Insurance, 97 percent of tornadoes in the state during the last 20 years were within the EF-0 to EF-2 range, with wind speeds of 135 mph or less. Homes built to Fortified Home standards can withstand such storms without major damage, said Ann Felton Gilliland, Central Oklahoma Habitat for Humanity chairman and CEO.

“It wouldn’t necessarily save the house,” Gilliland said, “but there will likely be less damage.”

Habitat families in Blanchard and other Oklahoma City metro communities — all used to their fair share of tornadoes and storms — have said that discussing the Fortified build brings peace of mind.

A day after handing over the keys to the first Fortified Habitat home in Blanchard to Larry Coley, Rebecca Briggs and their children Carlie and Shelby, McRee led a crew to start construction on the local organization’s ninth Fortified Home. During the spring and summer building seasons, Habitat typically starts a home and finishes another all in the same week and is on track to build 45 Fortified homes in 2017.

Volunteers partner with Habitat families to construct the homes. It’s a unique approach that, coupled with volunteer labor from construction professionals and donated materials, makes low-cost homes a reality. Habitat families also undergo training for managing a house and a household.

As Habitat lives out its mission of building homes and transforming lives, the organization continues to seek ways to innovate.

“While Habitat is a nonprofit, we do see ourselves as leaders in the industry instead of followers,” McRee said. “We are one of the most energy-efficient builders in the state. We made that commitment many years ago. Now, we are making the commitment to Fortified Homes.”

Visit cohfh.org.

Print headline: Stronger families, Central Oklahoma Habitat for Humanity goes beyond building affordable housing.

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