Part 2: Wildfires, floods, hurricanes and earthquakes
Home preparations for wildfires
Do you know if your home is in an area with a wildfire risk? “At least one-third of homes in the U.S. sit in a wildland-urban interface, where development meets a natural environment and wildfire is a serious risk,” reports Kiplinger. Contact your local zoning office to see if your home sits in a wildfire risk area; there might be local or county ordinances you need to follow.
Although wildfires can happen anytime, anyplace, they are more likely to occur in natural areas, especially after a period of little rain and high winds. Wildfires cost state and federal governments billions of dollars each year and they destroy thousands of homes. Check to see if your local fire department will inspect your property for fire hazards.
Several other measures can help you prepare your home against wildfire damage, ranging from landscaping and maintenance to equipment additions and upgrades:
- When landscaping, choose fire-resistant plants over more flammable trees such as pines and other conifers. Water all plants regularly.
- Manage plants and trees around your property. Remove dead branches, dried stalks and leaves and other debris.
- Create a 20-foot zone around the perimeter of your house that is free of combustible material. Keep wood piles outside this zone, as well as barbecue grills, tarps and anything else that may create a fire hazard.
- Replace mulch with gravel.
- Maintain a water source outside, like a pond, cistern, well or hydrant.
- Keep a long enough garden hose to reach all areas of all structures on your property.
- Regularly clean your roof and all rain gutters.
- Make sure your roof and wall coverings are flame-retardant.
- Use fire-resistant building materials for wooden decks, fences and other structures or cover them with fire-retardant chemicals evaluated by a nationally recognized laboratory, such as Underwriters Laboratories.
- Inspect and clean chimneys and stovepipes twice a year and keep dampers in working order. Install spark arresters that meet local and national safety requirements.
- Secure mesh screens over exhaust vent openings to the attic, eaves and HVAC system to prevent wind-blown embers from entering. Attach 1/8-inch mesh screen to the underside of porches, decks and the first floor of your home.
- Consider installing protective shutters over windows or hang heavy fire-resistant drapes.
- Install exterior faucets on at least two sides of the house and near any other structures. If your property extends at least 50 feet from the home, install additional outlets past the 50-foot line.
- Consider obtaining a portable gasoline-powered pump so you can still draw water in case electrical power is cut off.
- Some household items can double as fire tools. It can help to keep these handy: a rake, axe, hand saw or chainsaw, plus buckets and a shovel. Also keep a ladder that will reach the roof.
- Identify multiple exits from your home and be sure to keep them clear.
Visit the National Fire Protection Association for more tips.
Home preparations for flood
Flooding accounts for the greatest number of weather-related fatalities and greatest amount of weather-related property damage in the nation. According to Disaster Safety, $8.3 billion worth of damage is caused by flooding annually in the U.S. As such, flood preparedness should never be overlooked.
The first thing homeowners must do is identify their flood risk FEMA’s Flood Map Service Center for your property.
If you live in a flood zone, strongly consider purchasing flood insurance. Most home insurance policies do not cover flooding and many homeowners are not made aware of this fact until it’s too late
Next, identify the most likely points of entry for flooding. The next time it rains, watch where surface runoff flows — whether toward or away from your house and especially if it pools around specific doors, basement windows or other low spots. These observations will help you identify areas that can benefit from flood-proofing techniques listed below.
At first glance, some flood preparations for homes may look costly. However, considering the amount of damage even one inch of floodwater can do, the initial outlay for preparations may be worth the investment. Here are several flood protection tips for homeowners:
- If you live in a flood-prone area, consider having your house raised up onto stilts or piers. Weigh the cost of such an operation against the potential risk of flood damage to help you decide.
- Alternately, you can increase the grade around your home to direct water away from the house. Spread clay- or sand-heavy soil to slope away from your home so that any runoff empties downhill or into a gutter.
- Use water-resistant building materials when possible. Another option is to coat your home’s foundation, walls, windows and doorways with sealant to help prevent flood water from leaking into the house through cracks.
- Keep your rain gutters cleared of debris so they can direct water down and away from your roof and walls. Make sure downspouts point away from the house.
- Clear a space between any mulch and the base of your house to keep wet mulch from rotting the siding and leading to leaks. Siding should dry completely after a rain.
- Have an electrician raise electrical outlets, switches, sockets and circuit breakers to a level above your home’s flood base level.
- Find a way to protect your home’s HVAC unit, such as moving it to an upper floor or at least setting it on a riser or concrete blocks.
- Install automatic sump pumps, which pump water out of your house or foundation vents, which let water flow through lower levels instead of pooling inside.
- Anchor fuel tanks and generators to keep fuel lines from breaking and causing contamination and further damage.
- Install backflow valves to prevent a flooded sewer system from backing up into your home. Gate valves provide a better seal against water pressure than flap valves.
If flooding is already happening or on its way, take these last-minute precautions:
- Shut off electricity at the breaker panel.
- Clear out gutters and drains so water can flow through freely.
- Block any gaps inside with sandbags.
- Raise major appliances like the water heater, washing machine, dryer and refrigerator onto concrete blocks.
- Move electronics, furniture, rugs and precious items to higher levels.
See FEMA's protecting your home and property from flood damage for detailed tips.
Home preparations for hurricanes
Due to a combination of strong winds, heavy rain, flooding and even sometimes tornadoes, hurricanes can be catastrophic for buildings and entire communities. A hurricane’s storm surge can raise water levels by 30 feet or more, as in the flooding and devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Strong winds and tornadoes present additional concerns for safety, property destruction and power outages.
While hurricanes are deadly and destructive, they do not arrive suddenly. By following the National Hurricane Center, you can stay up to date on the location and strength of a hurricane. Ideally, by paying attention to the National Weather Service’s Hurricane and Tropical Storm Watches and Warnings page, you will have enough time to perform hurricane preparations for your home and then evacuate safely.
As always, you should start by knowing the risks and how to mitigate them. Know the category of hurricanes that usually hit your area. Have your home assessed to see what improvements can protect it against hurricane damage. Review your homeowner’s insurance and consider buying additional flood insurance. And familiarize yourself with your community’s hurricane response plan (shelters, alerts, evacuation routes and requirements). Once you’re informed, start fortifying your home using these hurricane preparation tips:
- Secure and seal the roof to keep wind and water out. Install hurricane straps to keep the roof attached to the walls even in strong winds.
- You can even install a new secondary water barrier between your roof deck and the shingles, which will keep out water in case the outermost layer of coverage fails.
- Upgrade and fortify any skylights.
- Consider installing FEMA-approved windstorm doors at all entrances.
- Install heavy-duty storm shutters on all windows. If you can, invest in windows with impact-resistant glass before the time comes or at least cover the panes with hurricane film to keep shards from flying if the glass breaks
- Anchor support posts firmly to the ground to keep high winds from tearing carports, garages or sunrooms off the house entirely.
- Reinforce garage doors with vertical braces or horizontal wooden beams to keep them from caving in and opening your home to the elements. Home improvement stores sell kits for these reinforcements.
- To keep out rain and blowing water, seal or caulk around windows, doors, cracks and any spots where cable, electrical or plumbing lines enter the home’s interior.
- Install check valves for plumbing to keep flooded sewer systems from backing up into your home’s plumbing.
If your area is under a hurricane warning, begin immediate hurricane preparations.
- If you don’t have storm shutters, nail sturdy boards across your windows to protect the glass from flying objects and debris.
- Remove and secure any objects or debris from your yard that can be lifted by heavy winds.
- Turn your refrigerator and freezer to the coldest setting (in case you lose power).
- Fill your car with gas.
- Listen to evacuation instructions and follow orders.
Home preparations for earthquakes
Earthquakes are often unpredictable and can cause serious devastation to properties. Reports suggest that annual U.S. earthquake losses are estimated at $4.4 billion.
But while they can start suddenly, it’s also important to know that they’re more likely to occur in certain parts of the country. As Kiplinger magazine explains, "While California waits for the big one, other parts of the country are at risk, too, including states adjacent to the Mississippi, Ohio and Wabash river valleys in the central U.S., as well as Charleston, S.C. and areas of Oklahoma and Pennsylvania where there is oil and gas drilling.” If you live in any of these areas, you may want to consider purchasing earthquake insurance.
Since there is no warning for earthquakes, the most effective way to protect against earthquake damage is to prepare your home well in advance. Find out when and how your home was constructed in order to determine which of these methods you’ll need to reinforce your home against earthquakes before they happen:
- Reinforce the inside of your home's cripple wall (the short wood-stud wall between the top of the foundation wall and the first floor) with sheathing.
- Add anchor bolts or steel plates between your home and its foundation.
- Brace unreinforced chimneys, masonry and concrete walls and foundations.
- Install a main shut-off device for natural gas or fit gas appliances with flexible connections.
- Use safety cables or straps to anchor the water heater, refrigerator, washer, dryer and any other large appliances to walls. If you can’t do that, lock the rollers of any large appliances or pieces of furniture.
- Assess cracks in walls and the foundation and have them repaired.
- Secure wall décor and mounted televisions.
- Anchor bookcases, filing cabinets and furniture to walls.
- Place heavier items on lower shelves.
- Use ledge barriers or earthquake putty to hold items in place on shelves and walls.
- Attach computers and other small electronics and appliances directly to countertops, tables or desks.
- Securely attach hanging items such as chandeliers or plants to walls and other permanent structures.
- Install latches on cabinet doors to keep them closed and hold contents inside.
- Apply safety film to windows and doors with glass.
- Know where your home’s safe spots are located and keep them clear.
Since aftershocks are likely after an earthquake and tsunamis are possible in the aftermath, it is important to continue safety precautions. See Ready Earthquake and Reducing Earthquake Risk for tips to help before, during and after an earthquake.