The recent storm-related havoc that pummeled Easterners from New York to North Carolina reminds us that weather-related disasters can strike anywhere, anytime.
Here’s how to be prepared so your home and family can avoid the worst.
Be sure you’re insured: Whether you rent or own, having some insurance coverage can mean the difference between losing everything or just a little.
“Homeowners need to update their policy every one to two years, following renovations or making a major purchase,” such as extensive remodeling or a big-screen TV, says Tully Lehman, spokesman for the Insurance Information Network of California (IINC), in an email. Even if your home’s market value has plummeted, be sure your insurance coverage is sufficient to cover rebuilding costs after a disaster.
Talk with your insurer to be sure you understand what’s in your policy.
Keep the numbers handy: Always have your insurance information with you—“either electronically on a smartphone or, for us old-timers, on a card you keep in your wallet,” Lehman says.
Protect your papers: In an emergency, you want a grab-and-go financial box that holds all your personal paperwork, everything from insurance documents to medical records. There are companies like LifeInCase.com that sell financial-filing boxes for $34.99.
But you don’t have to spend that much. Pick up an accordion-style file box at an office-supply store and create your own. You can label sections for Insurance, Medical, Property Records, etc., and insert copies of important papers.
If it’s waterproof or fireproof, even better. (Keep the originals in a safe deposit box or fireproof container.)
“Everyone in the house should know where it is,” says Lehman, “so that if police or fire personnel come banging on your door saying ‘Get out!’ you know that someone will grab it.”
Do an inventory: Whether it’s a paper, computer or video recording, create a room-by-room inventory of your possessions and home improvements.
“It’s absolutely essential,” says state Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, who advised Californians earlier this summer that a household inventory is one of the best ways to avoid “being victimized twice” in disputes with insurers after a disaster.
Most insurance companies offer similar inventory lists, and there are free online programs, such as “Know Your Stuff” from the Insurance Information Institute.
Need Extra Coverage? Most insurance policies do not cover earthquake or flood damage. Consider whether you want to buy additional coverage, either through the federal National Flood Insurance Program or your state.
Look at your location (whether you’re in a flood- or earthquake-prone area) to determine if you need the additional coverage. In some areas, flood insurance is required, particularly in high-risk areas. In other areas, it’s suggested but not mandatory.
“People need to evaluate the costs and risks and decide for themselves,” Vince Wetzel, the Sacramento spokesman for State Farm Insurance, said earlier this year.
Quake-proof your home: Keep heavy bookcases or furniture away from beds or sitting areas. Falling furniture can block an escape route and is a leading cause of death during an earthquake. Consider strapping or bolting heavy pieces to the wall.
If you’re concerned about breakable items or small collectibles in your home, look into putties and gels that let you secure them to a mantel, shelf or tabletop. In the kitchen, you might want to install latches that can prevent dishes from tumbling out of cabinets.
Reduce fire risks: Check your smoke alarm regularly. The classic advice is to replace the batteries every fall when you turn your clock back for daylight saving time. Some safety experts recommend checking your smoke alarm once a month by pressing the test button.
Outdoors, clear dry brush and vegetation at least 100 feet from your home’s exterior. This so-called “defensible space” can keep fire from leaping onto your home, according to the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Prune low-lying limbs away from your home’s roof. Clear out your gutters ahead of this winter’s rains.
Keepin’ a light on: In case of power outages, keep handy some emergency light sources: flashlights with batteries; lightsticks, which glow up to 12 hours; LED or propane lanterns; plug-in nightlights that double as portable illumination; or candles and matches.
Know exactly where they are so you’re not fumbling around in the dark, particularly if you have a second-story home. Ideally, a light source and shoes should always be by each person’s bed.
Have an escape route in case of fire and be sure your kids and family members know how to use it safely. If you’re in a two-story home or upstairs apartment, you might invest in a hanging ladder.
Have a designated “safe spot” where everyone can meet outside if you need to evacuate your home in an emergency.
As with Hurricane Irene, people are often left scrambling at the last minute to stock up on bottled water, packaged foods, portable generators and other items to get them through an emergency.
To avoid being caught unprepared, keep a small stash of nonperishable food, water and medical supplies on hand. Replace as needed.
© 2011 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)