Preparing Your Home for a Disaster

Preparing Your Home for a Disaster

- in Real Estate
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PowerPro installed their $11,000 system, just as Hurricanes Jose and Maria gained force in the Caribbean, and the Nilsens worried that perhaps they had not acted quickly enough. “I’m looking at all these storms and I’m thinking, ‘Oh God, I hope we have this all in place before another storm comes up,’” Mrs. Nilsen said.

Those who don’t plan ahead might find themselves battling long lines and dwindling supplies at Walmart, as they rush to stock up on water, batteries and portable generators. “The week before Irma hit, we had so many phone calls from people desperate to have product overnighted to them,” said Paul Fulton, the president of the Ready Store, an online emergency preparedness retailer that has seen inquiries jump 500 percent in the past few weeks. “At that point, it’s just too late.”

Being prepared for an emergency can mean stocking up on survival items like flashlights and multifunctional pocketknives, among other things.

Credit
Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

The growing prepper movement might capture the imagination of zealous survivalists awaiting the apocalypse, but in reality, most Americans are woefully unprepared for any disruption to their daily routines.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, the American Red Cross and the Department of Homeland Security all provide advice on preparedness. Yet a 2015 FEMA survey found that only 39 percent of respondents had an emergency plan that they had discussed with their families, even though 80 percent of Americans live in counties that have suffered weather-related disasters since 2007.

“We need a culture of preparedness that becomes a part of our everyday existence,” said Leslie Chapman-Henderson, the chief executive of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, a nonprofit organization in Florida. “There is not a place in the U.S. that is not without some form of hazard and risk.”

The best time to prepare is when the sky is clear and your weekend is free, not when local officials are telling you to board up windows and head for higher ground. But readying for the unknown can feel like a daunting and costly task — and one easily shelved. To make it more manageable, weave emergency planning into your everyday life, chipping away at the long to-do list. Here are some ways to get started.

CONSIDER WHAT AND WHERE YOU BUY

There is no way around it: Some homes are more disaster prone than others. Those near heavily wooded areas may face fire risk. Those near water could flood.

During this year’s ferocious hurricane season, people shopping for homes have been on high alert. Real estate brokers in Connecticut and Long Island say that prospective buyers have been asking pointed questions about waterfront properties, and interest in such homes has dipped since Hurricane Harvey ravaged Texas.

“It seems like homes on the water that were selling briskly during the summer have taken a slowdown,” said Joanne Schloen, the branch manager of the West Islip, N.Y., office of Coach Realtors, an affiliate of Christie’s International Real Estate. Prospective buyers “are afraid to buy something on the water,” Ms. Schloen said, adding that shoppers want to know if homes took on water in previous storms and are reluctant to consider those that have not been raised to meet FEMA flood elevation standards.

Some waterfront homes are a safer bet than others. Consider the five-bedroom home of Richard and Kim Alexander in Rowayton, a coastal village in Norwalk, Conn. After the 3,500-square-foot property sustained water damage in Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the Alexanders spent roughly $300,000 to raise the house and the grade of the lot, exceeding FEMA elevation standards. “As soon as I saw the damage from Sandy, I basically said to myself, ‘Third time is not a charm,’” said Mr. Alexander, 57, a consultant. “We’ve got to mitigate this flood exposure.”

Emergency Essentials, a Utah retailer, sells a range of ready-to-eat foods that could go in an emergency pack.

Credit
Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

The house is currently listed for $1.75 million. Amanda Davenport, the listing agent, said that elevating the property added $250,000 to the list price and helped attract nervous shoppers. “Nine out of 10 buyers will say, ‘I’m only looking at houses that are FEMA-compliant,’” said Ms. Davenport, a saleswoman for Halstead Property. “And that’s different from two weeks ago.”

A buyer made an offer on the house as Hurricane Irma was pummeling Florida, and the offer was accepted.

KNOW YOUR RISKS AND MAKE A PLAN

To protect yourself and your family from the unknown, you need to have some idea of what that unknown might be. If you live in New York, for example, you should prepare for blizzards, hurricanes and extreme heat, but you probably don’t need to spend too much time fretting about earthquakes.

Not all risks, however, are immediately obvious. The Federal Alliance for Safe Homes has a map that lists peril risk by state. Once you know your risks, download the Know Your Plan app from the Insurance Information Institute, which provides detailed checklists to help you prepare for various emergency scenarios.

At the very least, families should keep an emergency kit on hand. What you store in that kit will depend on where you live and the potential hazards you face. Generally, you’ll be dealing with one of two scenarios: the need to evacuate or to shelter in place. To make a speedy exit a smooth one, pack a backpack full of supplies for each family member. To stay put safely, you’ll need enough provisions to sustain your household for at least 72 hours.

Either way, you’ll need items like clothes, water, food, flashlights, batteries, a portable radio, cash, a first-aid kit and medicine. Keep a paper copy of important names, phone numbers and addresses, because thanks to cellphones and speed dial, few of us remember anyone’s phone number anymore. Items like baby wipes, work gloves and a multipurpose tool may also come in handy.

Discuss an emergency response plan with your family. Decide where to meet if you have to leave your home, or the neighborhood. Select a friend or relative to be the point person to call if you become separated.

And remember, emergency supplies need to be updated. Children outgrow clothes and medications expire. Warmer months call for different supplies than colder ones. Refresh your emergency kit as part of your spring and fall cleaning routine.

Freeze-dried foods come in various flavors and varieties.

Credit
Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Diane Thomson, a professional organizer and life coach, suggests preparing in stages, to avoid getting overwhelmed. “We’re not going to get it done this week,” she said. “But let’s say over this year, let’s take one step at a time.”

PROTECT YOUR VALUABLES

Jenny Herrero, who lives with her husband, Jose Herrero, and their two children in Lake Worth, Fla., thought she was prepared for Hurricane Irma. The family had weathered Hurricanes Irene and Sandy when they were living in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., losing power in both storms. For Irma, the family stocked up on food, lantern-style flashlights, batteries and gasoline for the portable generator.

They lost power for only a day during Irma, a minor inconvenience compared to the 16 days they went without power after Hurricane Sandy, and did not suffer major damage. After so many storms, the Herreros plan to add a separate emergency electrical panel, an investment of about $1,500, so that they can operate critical appliances using a transfer switch, without running extension cords through the house.

In all the preparation, though, Mrs. Herrero, 38, realized she had overlooked the family photographs. “I was scrambling to upload my digital photo collection onto Dropbox,” said Mrs. Herrero, who, ironically, owns Storyteller Productions, a company that stores and preserves photographs. “I was horrified that if we had flooding, or needed to leave suddenly, that my collection of family memories would be lost forever.”

The Herreros got lucky this time, but they learned an important lesson: Some preparation can be done weeks, if not months or years, in advance. Protect important documents and sentimental items like photographs and letters by uploading digital copies of the items or backing them up. Store original documents in a safe deposit box. And send a flash drive with digital copies of documents and photographs to a trusted friend or family member in another part of the country for safekeeping.

TALLY WHAT YOU OWN

To file a claim for damaged or destroyed possessions, you have to know what you own and roughly how much those items cost.

“No one remembers what’s in their house, not even me,” said Bob D’Amore, the president of the New York Public Adjusters Association. Homeowners often hire public adjusters to help file insurance claims and figure out what was lost.

But long before anything is damaged, you should take stock of your stuff; many insurance companies provide online tools to help. Or photograph rooms, items, receipts and the contents of closets to roughly document your possessions. Apps like Sortly and Home Contents make it easier to create a database that you could use if you were ever displaced.

KEEP TABS ON YOUR INSURANCE POLICY

As your home and life changes, so should your homeowner insurance policy. Review your policy every year to make sure it still provides adequate coverage. If you recently remodeled a kitchen or bathroom, your policy should provide enough coverage to rebuild it back to its updated condition.

Renters should buy insurance, too, and review those policies annually to make sure that the coverage for possessions is sufficient. “Sometimes renters underestimate how much it costs to replace the stuff that they have,” said Angi Orbann, a vice president of personal insurance at Travelers.

Not all hazards are covered in standard homeowners insurance policies. Flood insurance, for example, usually requires a separate policy. Only homeowners living in high-risk flood areas are required to buy flood insurance backed by the National Flood Insurance Program. However, more than 20 percent of flood claims come from people living outside such zones, according to FloodSmart.gov. “I personally believe that everyone should look at getting flood insurance,” Ms. Orbann said.

Discuss your policy with an insurance agent who can guide you through what sort of additional coverage you might need, depending on where you live and the particulars of your situation.

MAINTAIN YOUR PROPERTY

Some damage can be avoided, or lessened, by ordinary maintenance. Do not neglect chores like cleaning gutters and checking the roof for wear or damage. If your property has trees, have an arborist inspect them for signs of trouble.

“Seventy-five percent of trees that come down in a windstorm had some level of disease,” said Frances D. O’Brien, the division president of North America Personal Risk Services at Chubb. So part of protecting your home, she said, “is about maintaining your landscaping.”

If you live in a cold area, insulate pipes that face external walls to keep them from freezing. Know how to shut the water and gas off in the event of an emergency.

When you renovate, think about adding safety to your improvements. For example, when it comes time to buy a new roof, consider getting one that is resistant to fire, hail or hurricanes, depending on where you live. “If you’re already re-roofing, we’re talking about a nominal increase to upgrade to resistant” materials, said Ms. Chapman-Henderson, of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes.

Spend time now preparing your home and family from unforeseen risks, and when and if disaster strikes, you will be able to respond faster. “There is kind of a civic duty here,” said Ms. Thomson, the professional organizer. “The more we’re prepared, the less stress there is on the system.”

In other words, if you have the things that you need, then emergency responders can focus attention on those who do not.

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