natural disaster

How can homeowners protect from natural disasters?

Featured Question by Pablo Solomon: The wildfires spreading throughout Arizona and the tsunami in Japan are real eye openers. Mother nature doesn’t always play nice, which could mean disastrous consenquences for our homes.

With the natural disasters that have already struck, we are seeing just how vulnerable our homes are. How can homeowners protect themselves from extreme weather conditions above and beyond insurance? We’re turning to our Blog-Off experts to find out…

Why We’re Asking:

Green designer Pablo Solomon suggested our 12th Blog-Off question. Pablo is an internationally-recognized artist and environmental designer. While he is primarily known for his drawings and sculptures of dancers, he is also known for his environmentally friendly and soothing design work both for interiors and landscaping. Pablo currently lives and works on his historic 1856 ranch north of Austin, Texas. The ranch is an official Texas Wildscape and was nominated for the highest award in Texas for land stewardship.

Pablo suggested this question because, living in Texas, he has had some close calls with Mother Nature.He explains,

“Over the years, I have had close calls on my ranch north of Austin with wildfires. Several thousand acres burned literally up to my fence line. Since I have spent my life defending Mother Nature, I would like to know how other professionals account for potential damage caused by nature.”

For most of us, our homes are our number one asset and the biggest investment we will make in our lives. Thus, it is our main concern to protect this asset and our families. Mother Nature can do some extraordinary things, and for those of us that live in areas prone to extreme weather conditions, we want to know what we can do to protect our homes and minimize any potential damage.

So experts, it’s time to weigh in:

What can homeowners do to prevent damage from extreme weather and natural disasters?

We’re looking for information on how homeowners can protect their property from damage caused by extreme weather conditions and natural disasters, such as wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc. Whether it be structural advice or protective cosmetic changes, we want to know what options are available.

In addition to homeowners, what can designers, contractors, and builders do to protect homeowners’ property?
Are there precautions all professionals should be taking when working on a home?
Do you think this is an important consideration? Why or why not?

Experts, post your answers in the comment field below!



  • Cindy*Staged4more 06/20/11

    This is a tough one! I think it depends. It’s unlikely to protect your house from every single natural disaster, which are often impossible to know in advanced.

    But if you live in a frequent tornado, earthquake, etc. zone, yes, I do think there needs to be preventive measures for homeowners and the building community to take to prevent damages from weather/natural disasters.

    I personally grew up in a country where earthquake happens frequently, so it’s within building codes to do certain measures to make sure the buildings are as safe as possible when an earthquake occurs. And depending on the climate of you home, say if you are living in an area where humidity is a constant issue, builders and designers need to take that into consideration when they choose finishes that will be practical in humid weather all year round.

  • Pablo Solomon, Green Designer 06/20/11

    Hi follow experts,

    Here are a few points that I would like to share concerning my original inquiry.

    The great architect of many of our national park lodges–Gilbert Stanley Underwood–felt that not only should park structures blend into their surroundings and be aesthetically pleasing–but as much as possible be fire resistant as well. For his wonderful 1927 Ahwahnee Lodge in Yosemite he used a weathered granite exterior and created very realistic looking faux logs and planks of concrete. Such touches as slate or metal roofs also help to reduce the risks of fires.
    I have also seen techniques such as building berms, concrete/stone fire protection walls, land scaping in such a way as to create visually pleasing fire breaks, etc. used as fire prevention. The early Spanish settlers here in Texas designed their communities to resist both attacks and fires.

    For protection against a number of various disasters, one of the most creative things going is the recycling of the metal shipping containers to make modular housing. If properly anchored, the container homes are nearly indestructible and can have remarkably pleasing designs.

    I think that homeowners need to insist on homes that are as disaster proof as possible for the following considerations:

    1. Obviously for safety of life and property.
    2. For reduced insurance costs
    3. For increased resale value
    4. For welfare of the overall community
    5. For peace of mind

    I look forward to hearing what suggestions that my fellow professionals have to share.

  • Jason Todd @ GreenHomes America 06/20/11

    Mother nature negatively impacts our homes and indoor environment in many ways, and certainly building or retrofitting to deal with these extreme cases is important whether it is for protection against fire, high water or seismic and wind loads.

    More subtle and possibly more dangerous is the impact on our indoor environment. A recent study from the Institute of Medicine identifies how climate change affects the environment in our homes which has an impact on our nation’s health.

    It is Ironic that when the weather gets worse, we seek shelter indoors from extremes outside and in doing so still potentially put our health at risk. It is also reassuring that as a Home Performance contractor our work on homes is just what the “doctor ordered”.

    Most of the issues raised in the report are exactly the things we keep an eye out for with health and safety in mind. Every job we do starts and finishes with testing to ensure your home is a safe haven.

    The report identifies 5 major issues:

    Indoor Air quality: People don’t think all the cleaning chemicals under the sink amount to much but they can. We tend to leave all sorts of chemicals in our homes, leave connections to garages full of thing we shouldn’t breathe. We also have combustion appliances in our home which left un-checked can cause issues with CO. Our advisors keep an eye out for these conditions, it’s an integral part or health and safety for us.

    Dampness and Moisture: Extreme weather conditions outside lead to more frequent issues in our homes as water gets in where it shouldn’t. Cooling systems can contribute to moisture issue if not handled properly and certainly basements and crawlspaces do too. There are fixes for spaces with moisture issues that we sometimes ignore until it’s too late.

    Bugs and Bugs: weather and climate change can influence infectious diseases and pests and expanding the area where they flourish. A new “bug in town” will lead to new exposure for some of us and possibly an increase in pesticides previously not used before. Moisture in our home can lead to issues with mold and other pests. A home should be a healthy haven not a petri dish.

    Thermal Stress: High heat especially for those not prepared or more susceptible such as the elderly, will experience thermal stress almost exclusively inside. With temperature extremes come power outages compromising our ability to run cooling systems. Treating our buildings by insulating against the heat helps buffer your home.

    Building Ventilation, Weatherization and Energy use: As we experience climate change and weather extremes it gives us good reason to weatherize but it must be handled with expertise and always with a mind towards health and safety. No longer can we tighten up a home or insulate it without thinking about the whole house. GreenHomes America makes sure that every home is left a healthier home at job’s end.

    Fixing “old” buildings with new methods can create new problems. Being a BPI accredited company means we are committed to quality and accountability. A comprehensive Home Assessment with solutions provided to you from our team of experts will offer the safest answers to the ever changing environment inside.

  • Roone Unger @ EXOVATIONS 06/21/11

    While there’s sometimes little that can be done to protect your home from Mother Nature’s wrath, here are a few steps you can take today to help fortify your dwelling in the event of some of the more common natural disasters in the US.

    Flood

    What to do now: Did you know that the average home has a 26% chance of being damaged by flood over the course of a 30-year mortgage? This type of disaster affects every state in the US and homes sitting at or below sea level as well as near rivers are particularly vulnerable. If you know your house is flood-prone, it’s crucial to keep gutters as clean as possible to avoid blockages diverting runoff water into a basement or foundation joints during a storm. Basements are particularly vulnerable so install a sump pump to help remove water in the event of flooding and if possible, elevate the furnace and electrical panel off of the ground. Some security providers now offer flood alarms for homes which are worth looking into if you own, say, a vacation home or floods often come through your area in the night.

    What to do later: If your house is flooded, first contact your insurance company to see if you’re covered and what they recommend. Pump out standing water (only a few feet a day to avoid foundation cave-ins) and contact a contractor to begin the process of replacing floors and repairing exterior features of the home.

    Hurricanes

    What to do now: Coastal areas like Florida and Texas are usually hit hardest by hurricanes but states as far north as New York and as far inland as Arkansas have suffered damage from a storm. The main culprit of hurricane damage is wind and the debris it kicks up so now’s the time to get a plan ready for the next big tropical threat. If you live in a particularly vulnerable area, invest in hurricane shutters – metal are recommended – and consider purchasing a home that doesn’t sit directly on the water where waves and flooding are worst. For less imminently threatened areas like the Coastal Carolinas or even the Virginia seaboard, think about installing impact resistant windows and exterior doors with deadbolts and at least three hinges. Garage doors should be inspected and have metal stiffeners installed as they’re easily ripped off by severe winds. At the very least, prune shrubbery and large tree branches that look susceptible to gusts as they’re the most likely candidates to come through your roof or windows.

    What to do later: Again, it’s always best to contact your insurance company first to see what’s covered and what not to touch. You’ll need to have any stray debris removed, particularly limbs and trees, then get to work replacing windows, siding and shingles that may have been damaged in the storm.

    Tornadoes

    In an average year over 1,000 tornadoes hit the US, most of them causing widespread damage from “Tornado Alley” in the Midwest all the way through the Southeast. Funnel clouds come suddenly and with little warning but surprisingly, you can protect your home much in the same way you can prepare for a hurricane. If a tornado hits your property is most susceptible to debris and wind damage (most buildings are not built to withstand a direct hit from a tornado) so installing impact resistant windows and doors and shoring up roofs and garages are some of the best insurance policies. It’s also crucial to have your foundation checked as it’s most likely to fail where it meets the walls of your home – consult a professional for this. Unfortunately, the damage a tornado does ultimately depends on its path so it’s most important develop a safety plan that includes a tornado shelter or interior rooms to use as personal cover.

    What to do later: If your home is still livable after a tornado hits your area you’re in good shape. First contact your insurance company and take plenty of photos for the record then get to work clearing debris and broken glass from the property. It’s a good idea to have a foundation evaluation done after such a storm to ensure your house hasn’t sustained any structural damage.

  • Kia Ricchi "The Contractress" 06/22/11

    Every natural force has its own unique consequences. In regard to hurricane wind loading, the home should be securely anchored from roof to foundation. This “continuous load path” requires the use of hurricane straps, bolts, and other hardware. The windows also need to be securely anchored so that the wind does not breach the exterior shell and cause uplift. You ask, “What can a homeowner do?” When building a new home or addition, make sure that the contractor is licensed and is working from engineered drawings. Also, the contractor should pull a permit so that inspectors can verify that the work is code compliant. If a home is older and is not anchored per today’s requirements, it can be retrofitted to some degree. For example, hurricane straps can be added. But know this. If they are not properly installed, they may be of little use. In all cases, seal the windows with plywood or shutters so that you prevent the wind and weather from entering your home.

  • Sharon Van Buskirk @ Preservation Tree 06/23/11

    Properly maintaining your trees will enhance home protection from disasters like storms and fires. Hiring a certified arborist to assess and maintain tree health and tree structure goes a long way in protecting your home while in the meantime, boosting your home’s value.

    Here’s a bulleted list on how having your trees professionally maintained can help mitigate storm damage to your trees and nearby structures:

    · Proper tree selection, informed site selection and expert planting will help protect your property, landscape and your investment when you add trees to your yard.

    · Mature trees can sometimes have a wind sail effect in strong storms. Ongoing maintenance by properly pruning trees helps diminish damage from wind, rain, sleet and snow.

    · Keeping up with the growth of a tree is important, too. Limbs may grow into power lines, affect roofs, neighboring properties and public areas, like sidewalks.

    · Stressed or damaged trees may be more prone to structural failure in a storm situation. Having an expert assess your trees on a regular basis can prevent treasured trees from becoming hazard trees.

    · Fertilizing trees by amending the soil conditions to support the trees’ systems is a service that Preservation Tree Services in Dallas-Ft. Worth has perfected over its 16 years in business. Preservation Tree can make the appropriate applications with the aid of specialized equipment and their own proprietary liquid compost extract, produced onsite and delivered within days of manufacture for optimum tree health.

    The Tree Care Industry Association offers this check list of warning signs:

    o Wires in contact with tree branches. Trees may become energized when they are contacted by electric wires.
    o Dead or partially attached limbs hung up in the higher branches that could fall and cause damage or injury.
    o Cracked stems and branch forks that could cause catastrophic failure of a tree section.
    o Hollow or decayed areas on the trunk or main limbs, or mushrooms growing from the bark that indicate a decayed
    and weakened stem.
    o Peeling bark or gaping wounds in the trunk also indicates structural weakness.
    o Fallen or uprooted trees putting pressure on other trees beneath them.
    o Tight, V-shaped forks which are much more prone to failure than open U-shaped ones.
    o Heaving soil at the tree base is a potential indicator of an unsound root system.

  • Scott Pantall @ Blue Spruce Inventory 06/23/11

    One of the simplest things homeowners can do to protect their belongings is to create a home inventory. It is best to store your inventory off-site or online so that if anything were to happen to your home, you would have all the info you need to make a claim. Just about every insurance agency has a form you can use to create your inventory. There is also software, but be sure to store it on a computer away from home. Make sure to have detailed descriptions, prices, and even receipts/model numbers if possible.

  • Jennifer @ Yourhome.ca 06/23/11

    It’s impossible to safeguard your home against all natural disasters, so I’d suggest researching risks in your area and also having an in-depth talk with your insurance provider to make sure you’re covered if the worst does happen. That includes making, and preferably photographing, a detailed inventory of all of your belongings.

    As for prevention itself, it’s all about being aware of the risks. Having grown up in an area where low-grade hurricanes and tropical storms were the norm, I got used to watching the weather forecast and moving outdoor furniture into storage whenever there was any risk of a storm. Anything that could be picked up by the wind was always stowed or tied down! We even bought a concrete table for our yard after getting tired of tie-down failures and flimsier models blowing away. These storms also often came with heavy rain – meaning risk of flood. To help prevent flooding, homeowners should make sure ground is sloped away from their home and plant beds, and do regular checks (preferably when it is raining) to see if water is accumulating anywhere along the foundation.

    If you’re moving into a new area, be sure to ask neighbours about their own experiences – is the hood prone to windstorms? Flooding? Extreme heat? And ask them how they cope. Their tried and tested methods might just save you from making the same mistakes and prevent costly repairs.

  • Chantay Bridges, Los Angeles Realtor 06/23/11

    When professionals are building or performing a service in a natural disaster area, they should consider installing emergency preventive measures or alerting homeowners to their existence. Be knowledgeable, know how and what to do to protect the home and do it. Preparing a home for an emergency is a imperative consideration. It can be a matter of someone’s life or death. It is extremely important and should be placed at the top of every homeowners to-do-list.

    Here are some ways homeowners can prevent damage due to Mother Nature:

    * Consider the interior and exterior of your home, check for items that are loose, heavy or stored up high. If you have trees or shrubs that are near the home, keep trimmed and pruned to prevent increased fire damage. Be sure to remove all rotting or dead trees.
    * Check and reinforce roof. Seek a professional in regards to bracing, steadying and securing hurricane straps.
    * Create a retrofit for garage doors; keep them reinforced
    * Wood frame buildings should use strips, anchors, clips, etc. to secure
    * Make sure you remove heavy objects from high areas
    * Have a professional repair any wiring that may be defective
    * Call the gas company to check for any leaky gas connections
    * Repair cracks that are long and deep in ceilings, foundations and driveways
    * Make sure you have adequate drainage
    * If you haven’t already, have a emergency gas shut off installed
    * All mainbreakers or fuse boxes should be elevated in case of flood
    * Keep your insurance policy up to date and current
    * Clean gutters are a necessity in flood preparation. Consider a flood alarm
    * Metal hurricane shutters and resistant windows can be a life saver in the event of an emergency

  • Rand Soellner @ HomeArchitects.com 06/23/11

    1. FIRE FROM OUTSIDE YOUR HOME: if you live in a heavily forested area, cut back the trees and other vegetation well beyond your home to an extent recommended by your local fire department. This may be well over 100 feet. Keep your lawns and other low-growing vegetation well-watered (it is harder to burn plants that are well-hydrated). You can have lawn irrigation systems to help with this. Install pumps and suction lines for fire-fighting if you have ponds, streams and other water features on your property to help fire fighters and you to spray water on your home Before a fire threatens it. Allow me to select non-combustible materials for your home construction, such as cementitious wall siding and cement-based roof shingles and other optional materials if you live in an area prone to wildfires. If your home can’t burn, there’s not much of a threat. I can explain how to accomplish this.

    2. HIGH WINDS: I work with structural engineers all over America to have your home designed to resist high winds. It means having special wind posts and wind beams in the construction, larger members, horizontal load transfer walls, steel strapping tie-downs and sensible planning so that previously loose elements are secured better and are stiffer, to resist horizontal and vertical and other dynamic external wind loads. Also, if you are in a high-impact environment, we can plan for special glass or functional shutters to protect your windows. Most homes collapse after their windows and doors are breached by high winds, allowing what amount to a prize fighter “uppercut” to force the roof off, thereby leading to a total failure of the structure.

    3. EARTHQUAKES: similar to above, I work with structural engineers in different areas of the USA to resist seismic loads. Shear walls are part of this. Horizontally reinforcing your walls, for very little extra cost can help to stabilize your home. Hold downs are also part of this system, tying your walls to your foundations. Also, having foundation walls of concrete rather than concrete block can solidify your home’s structure, where it counts the most: your foundation.

    These are important considerations. Part of the problem is that much of America is Not in a seismic D or worse situation, most is in a seismic C or less. These means that there is no legal requirement to secure most of America’s homes against the possibility of an earthquake. And in zones that have not seen an earthquake in decades, this can strike with a ferocity against which the structures are not prepared. Cost is a factor, of course, because it costs more to brace a home. In my practice, we feel there are precautions that can be taken (as above) to help resist these forces for minimal investments. This seems to make sense to me.

  • Richard Hayman 06/23/11

    As the weather events are becoming more severe, truly protecting one’s home is getting to be impossible. Once you’re in harm’s way, there little chance of avoiding damage or complete destruction.

    The obvious answer is to live in areas of the country where these events are rare.

    I recall being at a conference of Florida country treasury officials where the discussion centered around damage to homes built too close to the water. They felt that no public money should ever be used when the homeowner placed themselves in harm’s way.

    Insurance companies will continue to limit coverage in parts of the country where disaster occur more frequently. A good example is that no private insurance company offers flood insurance. That is a federal program.

    I have a weekend house located on a heavily wooded lot on a mountain ridge. My biggest fear is a forest fire. I did four things: 1) Exterior siding is cement fiberboard, 2) The driveway is smooth, wide, and strong enough to handle a tanker/pumper truck, 3) there is no fuel (combustible material) close to the house, and 4) the tree line was cut back so the closest trees are 30 feet from the house.

    In addition, the propane tank is buried and grass was planted instead of bringing wood chips close to the house. My landscaper removes all dead limbs that come crashing down during the winter from wind and ice.

    Also, an automatic electric generator keeps the heat on when the power fails too frequently.

    This one really saved me: When the house is vacant, the power to the well is cut off. A maximum of 10 gallons of water will be spilled in the event of a burst pipe during the winter.

    One winter the generator did not start when the gas regulator air vent was covered with ice (it has been corrected). I did not know this when I turned on the water pump, I had a major leak. Had the well been powered up, two weeks of running water would have filled the basement. The leak was on the second floor. A major disaster was avoided for the price of a $50.00 wall switch.

    With good insurance and crossing my fingers, I’m hoping I’ll be OK.

  • Peter L. Mosca, Green Realtor 06/23/11

    Accidents happen. Fires, weather-related storms, electrical mishaps, mother nature… this list could go on and on. While I simply cannot try to give advice on how what homeowners can do to prevent damage from extreme weather/natural disasters, I can offer what not to do: call your insurance company. When your property is damaged, what do you do? Most property owners call their insurance companies first — thinking that is in their best interests. Did you know that your insurance company hires professional adjusters to protect their interests? Well, you should, too. Choose to go it alone with your insurance claim and you will more than likely cost yourself more. Property loss consultants can work more competently and expediently to prepare a claim — prepare and file the necessary claims and forms expertly – in order to gain the greatest advantage for you, the policyholder and property owner when negotiating with the insurance company’s adjuster.

  • Patricia Davis Brown, ASID, CKD, CBD @ Dig This Design 06/24/11

    Depending on the region of the country you live in you must protect your home from Mother Nature’s wrath. Where I live we are prone to hurricanes. You can protect your home from hurricanes by installing hurricane shutters.

    Roll shutters- are super convenient and can be motorized and automated. They can be operated from inside or outside of your home. Prices for the roll shutters range between $16.00 – $40.00 per sq. ft.

    Colonial shutters – Can only be opened and closed from outside your home. The good thing is there is a price savings. Colonial shutters range between $12.00 – $28.00.

    Bahama shutters – Can be opened and closed from outside your home but, with an up charge can be made to close from inside the home. Priced in the same price range as the Colonial shutters.

    Accordion shutters – Easy operation from inside or outside the home. Aesthetically not pleasing to the architecture of the home. Price range of $12.00 – $18.00 which is a little softer to the wallet.

    Storm panels – Very time consuming to put up, especially when time is precious like getting ready for the storm to hit. You can only install from the outside of the home. The good news is they have a low price tag between $5.00 – $10.00 per sq. ft.

    There are storm shutters for all budgets and if you are in an area prone to hurricanes you do want to protect you, your home and your belongings.

  • Nancy Keenholts Dalton @ Baywolf Dalton, Inc. 06/24/11

    I live in Seattle, an area of the country that doesn’t have that many natural disasters; but we have the potential to have an extremely bad earthquake similar to the recent quake in Japan and tsunami’s.

    I think the best advice is to build in accordance to your local building codes and for homeowners living in homes more than twenty years old to research the changes in their local codes and consider upgrades. I know on the west coast we have much better structural requirements because of the risk of these earthquakes. Things like bolting your home to its foundation are smart upgrades. Even maintenance like keeping your brick chimney tuck pointed and in good condition just may keep it from falling over into your home and actually hurting people.

    Our other natural disaster is slower to recognize, rain. Especially this year, we have had so much wet weather. If windows and doors aren’t installed properly and with the right flashing you’ll have damage. This is the kind of damage you may not see for a while and can be very serious. Caulking is another maintenance item that needs to be done routinely to keep weather and pests out of a home.

    Have a structurally solid, well maintained home with a weather tight exterior and plenty of supplies (food, water, radio, sleeping bags those sorts of things) readily available. Keep copies of your homeowners insurance and other documents in a plastic sealable bag with your emergency items. Have a fire extinguisher and a first aid kit and extra medications if you need them. Have a plan that your family knows and some of your extended family knows about.

  • Jennifer Dusina @ freedomRail 06/24/11

    Natural disasters can come in all shapes and sizes and the hardest part is that you never know when one will strike. But by preparing your home for potential dangers ahead of time, you have a better chance at weathering the storm. Here are a few helpful tips of things you can do prior to protect your home.

    • Keep your insurance policy up to date. Make sure you understand if your policy covers natural disasters.
    • Protect your home from flooding with a battery-operated sump pump for the basement.
    • Add emergency power like portable generators to keep your important electrical items working during storms such as lights, refrigerator and heaters.
    • Install a whole-house surge suppressor to help keep the electricity in your house from frying the wires of your electrical equipment.
    • Be smart about your home’s building material. Use bricks, slate and granite as much as possible.
    • Make sure windows and doors are durable and weather proof.
    • Stay on top home improvements such as updated roofs and interior and exterior maintenance.
    • Always keep trees healthy by giving them a good trim each year. The stronger the tree, the less likely they are to bend under extreme pressures.

  • Mary Kennedy Thompson @ Mr. Rooter Plumbing 06/24/11

    Most homeowners are not aware their home does not meet today’s plumbing standards as required by local plumbing codes. Those plumbing codes, designed to prevent future problems, are continuously updated and improved as municipalities learn from everyday accidents and natural disasters. You can make sure your home is up to standards with a quick plumbing check-up. A check-up can identify important upgrades and repairs required to keep your home safe and secure.

    In earthquake prone areas, seismic straps on a water heater keep the unit in place during an earthquake. This keeps the water heater secure so water, electrical and gas lines remain intact. The tank also provides fresh drinking water.

    A good plumbing check up will inspect the water heater’s temperature and pressure relief valve, which eases pressure build up in the tank. Even though manufacturers recommend yearly tests, it’s rarely done. This can be disastrous as this valve may be the single most important safety valve in your home. When pressure builds up, a mal-functioning valve can contribute to a water heater explosion. (Check it out on Myth Busters!)

    In areas where freezing weather is a concern, homeowners should ensure all exposed piping is insulated to prevent it from freezing. Frozen pipes often split and cause water damage when they thaw.

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