Preparing for Disaster: Is Your House Ready?


Disasters can strike anywhere. Help make sure your home is ready.

In just a few hours in October, the winds and water of Hurricane Sandy swept away decades of memories on the Eastern Seaboard. News reports showed the devastation left in its wake with homes, cars, boats and structures severely damaged or destroyed.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Sandy claimed nearly 200 lives in the United States and the Caribbean. Damage in the United States alone was estimated to be nearly $70 billion as of late November, according to the offices of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

Facing the Inevitable

Punishing hurricanes, powerful tornadoes, racing wildfires, devastating floods: Epic storms have taken a toll on homes, businesses and lives. According to Munich Reinsurance America, from 1980 through 2011, 30,000 people in North America lost their lives to weather catastrophes that caused more than $1 trillion in damages (in 2011 values).

"Hurricanes come around every single year," says Julie Rochman, president and CEO of the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety. "Mother Nature doesn't keep a chart or a timeline to know that you've been visited before."

What's your risk?

You can do many things to help prepare for the worst that weather brings. Begin by checking your exposure to natural disasters. Two organizations that promote stronger, more resilient construction methods are the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes ( and the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety ( They each provide a search feature on their websites that allows homeowners to assess state-by-state risk for extreme weather events such as hurricanes, wildfires, flood and hail.

Be Ready for Hurricanes

Start your weather defense by making sure your roof is ready. Contact a licensed roofing professional to install a high-wind-rated roof cover, and have it securely fastened to the house with hurricane straps or clips. This can be done when re-roofing or by reinforcing the existing roof-to-wall connections.

Strapping is often easy and relatively inexpensive to install. You can buckle your house to its foundation and the walls to each other while you are at it. "It is amazing to us how many houses are held together and to their foundations by little more than gravity," Rochman says.

Do a visual inspection of your roof and look for worn-out, missing or damaged shingles and overhanging branches. If it's time to re-roof, ask your contractor to seal the joints between the sheathing panels that make the roof deck to prevent wind-driven water from getting in. Steve Quarles, senior scientist at IBHS, says it will add only about $500 to a project on an average-size house.

Then look at all the openings in your house, from the garage door and patio sliders to your windows. Secure any loose connections and seal any gaps that could allow for water intrusion. If you are thinking about buying new windows, be sure to look for impact-rated windows to keep the damage to a minimum. Consider adding removable storm shutters.

Not in a hurricane or tornado zone? You may still need to assess your potential for wind and water damage from other weather events. Texas, for example, is examining ways to reduce substantial losses from hail damage, according to the state insurance commissioner. NOAA says average thunderstorm losses have increased fivefold since 1980.

Preparing for Wildfires

There's earth, there's wind — and there's fire. Though wildfires are often thought to be a risk for Western states, 38 states face significant risk from wildfires, IBHS says. And just as with hurricanes and tornadoes, a homeowner's best defense against fire may begin with the roof and windows, the institute says.

While untreated wood shakes are beautiful, they won't stand up to a wildfire. Instead, the IBHS recommends Class A roofing materials, which are capable of withstanding severe fire exposure. For new windows, look for dual-pane tempered glass. It's much more resistant to the heat generated by wildfire – and is becoming more affordable.

If replacing your roof and windows is not in the budget right now, you can buy your home some breathing room by looking at ways to create fire-resistant zones in your landscaping. "The importance of vegetation management around the home is critical because that's what keeps the fire from getting to your house," Quarles says.

He recommends establishing a "near-home" zone around the exterior of your house with non-combustible materials – think sidewalks, small flowers and irrigated lawns, not wood mulch and shrubs. This zone should extend to five feet away from the house.

Pay attention to how embers might enter your home, since wind can carry them over a nonflammable zone. Put screens over vents and box the eaves so that the ends of the rafters aren't exposed and keep your gutters clear at all times.

Taking steps to make "your house better able to resist a wildfire does not have to cost an arm and a leg," Quarles says. "A lot of things are essentially sweat equity. Most homeowners are capable of cleaning gutters and maintaining vegetation on the property."

Bracing for a Winter Storm

It also doesn't take an expert to prepare for winter weather. Clearing gutters prevents ice from catching hold and backing up under the shingles. Trimming branches prevents them from snapping on your house.

Look for worn-out, missing or damaged siding and roof flashing, and make sure your chimney is still standing straight and tall. If the chimney is leaning or if the mortar between the bricks has seen better days, it's time to contact a professional to repair or replace it.

Consider adding to the insulation in your attic. It will keep your house warm and your attic cool enough that snow is much less likely to melt and get caught at the edges of the roof in an ice dam. Generally, for less than $100, you can invest in a roof rake to ease the snow load.

The Risk of Floods

According to, the website for the National Flood Insurance Program, just six inches of flood water in a home could do more than $20,000 in damage.

"Flooding can happen any time of the year," Rochman says, "and it can happen on the top of a mountain as well as down in a valley."

If your location's risk profile shows a danger of flooding, consider obtaining flood insurance from the federal government. While the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 could cause rates to increase -- especially for secondary homes in high-risk areas -- the cost of flood insurance is still far less than the cost of repairing the damage from a flood-related loss. But don’t wait until the last minute to buy: Flood insurance takes 30 days to kick in.

When you're given warning of a flood, you should have time to blunt its impact on your possessions by picking up area rugs and placing furniture, electronics and appliances on blocks that elevate them off the floor. "Shut off electrical service at the main breaker," Rochman says.

No one wants to experience a natural disaster, especially one powerful enough to cause significant damage. But planning and preparation can help you withstand much of what Mother Nature has in store.

Disaster has struck and you need to rebuild. Now what?

Consider building a "fortified" home, which may help protect you in future storms and may also reduce your homeowners insurance. Chances are the building code in your area has evolved considerably from when your home was first constructed.

Build to "code plus"

If you live in a known high-risk area, it may be in your best interest to build to a code-plus standard, says George Drew, assistant vice president of underwriting at USAA. "Saying my home is built to code means it's built to the minimum life safety standard," he says. The beachfront homes that survived the storm surge and high winds of Hurricane Ike in 2008 on Bolivar Peninsula, Texas, were built to a code-plus standard referred to by IBHS as "fortified," he adds.

Using applied building science solutions, IBHS developed standards for residential and small commercial buildings to reduce the risks these properties face. The IBHS programs are called Fortified for Safer Living, Fortified for Existing Homes and Fortified for Safer Business.

For an average new home, IBHS says, the cost to meet the Fortified standard ranges from 3% to 10% of the total construction costs. The cost to meet the Fortified standard to retrofit an existing home is up to 5% of total constructions costs, Drew adds

Safety first

The Federal Trade Commission offers these safety tips to those recovering from a disaster:

  • Before you give out your personal information, make sure it is absolutely necessary. Ask to see the ID of anyone who wants to come into your home. Investigate any company with whom you think you want to do business. Check trucks and cars for local addresses and phone numbers.
  • Get more than one estimate for repairs or service. Ask for copies of the contractor's general liability and workers' compensation insurance.
  • Shop around. Some businesses advertise "disaster" sales, offering appliances and major electronics at reduced prices. While these could be bargains, they also could be gimmicks.
  • Don't pay the full price for service work until the service is completed and you're satisfied with the work.


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