Homeowners need to be ready in case anything happens to threaten their household. Sometimes, natural disasters can strike that are well beyond anyone’s control, but there are still steps everyone can take to be ready for any worst-case scenario:
Have adequate insurance
Homeowners insurance is a must have for anyone with a house, and likewise, you should have renter’s insurance if you’re not yet a homeowner. But just signing up for insurance isn’t enough.
When it comes to natural disasters, not everything will necessarily be covered. Flood insurance is usually separate from your homeowners policy. So, if you live in a flood zone, you will need supplemental coverage. (Depending on your mortgage loan and where your property is, this may be required of you, but you should definitely make sure your coverage is in place for things like flood damage.)
If you don’t have flood insurance yet, FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program is a good website to start.
In addition to flood damage, earthquakes are often excluded from standard policies. So, if you live in an earthquake prone area, look into supplemental coverage for this.
Besides natural disasters, making sure your insurance coverage is adequate means ensuring your losses will be covered. Do a home inventory and assess the value of your belongings, and make sure you have enough coverage to replace everything if it were lost in a natural disaster.
It’s a good idea to take photos of your valuables in advance. This will allow you to prove your losses later if your insurance company disputes your claim.
Know your region
Depending on where you live, the natural disasters you might face will be very different. Take care to be prepared for the specific disasters that are most likely to occur in your area.
The American Red Cross has an interactive map of common natural disasters in the U.S., along with other great resources.
Besides knowing what disasters might strike your local area, know what local resources you have for disaster preparation. Your area should have a local emergency planning committee, and your nearest city should have a Department of Emergency Management. Find the website for the department nearest you and take advantage of any resources they offer. Start with your state government’s website and then work your way to a more local organization if necessary. The U.S. Department of Transportation has a list of state emergency management office contacts that’s a great place to start.
Prepare your home
We talked about doing a home inventory and getting enough insurance, but there are other physical steps to take to prepare your home for disasters.
This depends on where you live. If you’re in an area subject to wildfires, you’ll want to keep trees and brush cleared near your house to make fire less likely to spread. If you live where hurricanes or tornadoes happen, make sure you have good shutters installed and a secure shelter or basement that will protect you from high winds. If blizzards or cold snaps are a concern, make sure you have enough insulation to prevent frozen plumbing lines and serious water damage.
There are a lot of accessories that can help you prepare your home, like sump pumps, generators, tie downs and earth anchors. Also be sure to keep smoke detectors and fire extinguishers charged and ready.
Do your regular home maintenance. Keeping the roof and gutters free of debris can help you avoid more serious damage if a disaster strikes and having a good space plan in your home means easier evacuation if necessary.
Make a disaster kit
Having a disaster kit prepared is a very important step. Hopefully you’ll never need it, but it can make all the difference in the event of an emergency. Include a basic first aid kit, drinking water or filters/purifiers, preserved food, emergency lighting, bedding, and cash. Assume the ATMs will be offline during an emergency and stash some money away to buy emergency supplies. Have a change of clothes and toiletry kit on hand as well, in case you are displaced and don’t have time to pack appropriately.
Another critical step is to safeguard your important documents. You’ll want to keep originals in a safe deposit box or fire-proof safe, but keep a copy either digitally on the cloud, or printed in your disaster kit. These might include social security cards, birth certificates, insurance policies, medical records, etc. Anything that might prove essential in the event of an emergency should be copied and on hand.
Also put together a contact sheet for anyone it might be important to reach in an emergency. Assume your internet will be inaccessible, and get the numbers for your insurance agent, financial institutions (including credit card companies), health care providers, emergency services, utility companies, and any other local contacts you might need (or who might need your help in an emergency).
Have a plan
Keeping your family safe and together will be your top priority in an emergency. Make sure everyone knows what to do if you all become separated. Plan for a route to evacuate the neighborhood if necessary, and a meeting place to regroup if you lose track of each other during a disaster.
You’ll also want to plan for preparing your home if there’s time. What utilities will you shut off, and how will you do this? Prepare written instructions to follow so anyone in the family can carry out this part of the plan. Assume things will be very chaotic in a disaster. Spell things out clearly so someone can follow the directions under duress.
Besides utility shutoffs, plan for what to do with major appliances; turning the refrigerator and freezer to their coldest settings before power goes out might help save your food supply. Sensitive electronics should be protected by surge protectors and/or battery backups.
As you discuss your plan with the family, keep these factors in mind: what is your evacuation plan, your plan for sheltering in place, and how will you all stay in communication with each other. Designate a family friend or relative as the emergency contact for the whole family if you’re unable to get in touch with each other.
Prepare your finances
There’s a lot to think about here; having insurance is only the first step to protecting your household finances. Check out FEMA’s Emergency Financial First Aid Kit for a lot of great information about getting organized before disaster strikes.
Make sure you have contact information for every financial institution and creditor you owe money to included in your disaster kit. If you are displaced due to a natural disaster, contact them and talk about your situation. During an emergency, you’ll find most creditors will be accommodating and let you defer payments until the crisis has passed. But you’ll only get this benefit if you ask for it. Don’t avoid talking to the bank or credit card company if an emergency disrupts your ability to pay on time. If you need help communicating with your creditors, a credit coach can help you assess your situation and approach your financial institutions the right way.
After a disaster strikes, you might have financial issues to address. Check out our post on Dealing With Debt After a Natural Disaster for more information.
There are plenty of great resources out there to help prepare for natural disasters, like FEMA, Ready.gov, and DisasterAssistance.gov. After a catastrophe hits, HUD-approved counseling can help with foreclosure prevention, and debt coaching can help you avoid a financial crisis. Don’t be shy about asking for help when you need it most!