The Homeowner’s Hurricane Safety Guide
Fact-checked with HomeInsurance.com
Homeowners who live throughout the Eastern seaboard will of course need to consider whether they have adequate insurance coverage to protect them from hurricanes and other tropical storms. Experts, including those at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, agree that storms will become more frequent and intense in the next several years. This makes it all the more important for homeowners to review their policies and consider whether their coverage really does protect against the devastation of such storms.
But beyond coverage, homeowners also need to know what safety measures they must take in anticipation of a hurricane – insurance and prior preparation go hand and hand. Our guide is designed to give homeowners a broader introduction to safety in these dangerous, and expensive, storms.
How Hurricanes Put You at Risk
Tropical storms are identified by their location and severity, with hurricanes just being one classification. But storms of all shapes and sizes bring havoc to coastal towns year in, year out. Consider the immediate and long-lasting damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the largest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic.
Hurricane Sandy stretched more than 1,000 miles, allowing it to reach from Florida to Maine. That enormous reach meant the storm caused unprecedented damage. If you haven’t seen the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy, then some facts will help you understand just how destructive hurricanes can be:
- According to the Tropical Cyclone Report on Hurricane Sandy, the storm killed at least 234 people in eight countries.
- The tropical storm caused an estimated $50 billion in property damage in the United States alone.
- The New York Times reports that Hurricane Sandy destroyed approximately 375,000 housing units in the New York and New Jersey area.
- Even though Hurricane Sandy had ended by October 31, 2012, many people did not have electricity until the beginning of December.
- Over 8.5 million people lost power during and after the storm.
- Seaside Park, New Jersey didn’t finish rebuilding its boardwalk and businesses damaged by Sandy until nearly a year after the storm subsided.
And while the damage from a superstorm like Sandy, when seen on paper, can feel like it’s only property damage costs, it’s important to appreciate how varied and complete a hurricane’s destruction can be. Some sources of damage, such as flash floods and high wind, are obvious, but here are some other problems hurricanes cause:
- Surges of sewage forced above ground, causing erosion and long term pollution
- Fires created by short-circuits in electrical systems
- Decreased air quality (debris from demolished buildings can pollute the air)
- Flying debris
It’s important to appreciate the totality of hurricane damage for two reasons.
First, it’s crucial homeowners understand that hurricane damage intrudes upon every aspect of life and property. The ripples of a hurricane can be felt for years; while the starkest damage is seen in the leveling of homes and communities, there is also a great deal of accumulated, long term risk brought about by hurricanes.
This leads to the second concern: insurance. Premiums for home insurance in hurricane prone areas are some of the highest in the country, and for good reason. Even if a property is never wrecked by a storm, the smaller, often overlooked, damage done will add up to a rash of issues eventually requiring repairs and the help of a policy to pay for those repairs. The homeowner who does a shoddy job of keeping up on their property, before and after a hurricane, is likely to pay a hefty price – be it in premiums or a far more costly toll.
Where Hurricanes Happen
All areas along the East Coast and Gulf Coast can experience significant damage from hurricanes. Some locations, however, are worse off than others.
Dr. Stephen Leatherman, the director of the International Hurricane Research Center, says that the ten worst locations for hurricanes in the United States are:
- New Orleans, Louisiana
- Lake Okeechobee, Florida
- The Florida Keys
- Mississippi’s coastline
- The Miami/Ft. Lauderdale area of Florida
- The Galveston/Houston area of Texas
- Cape Hatteras, North Carolina
- Eastern Long Island, New York
- Wilmington, North Carolina
- The Tampa/St. Petersburg area of Florida
Just because you don’t live in one of these areas doesn’t mean a hurricane or tropical storm won’t damage your home. Anyone living relatively close to the East Coast or Gulf Coast faces some risk. If, for instance, a hurricane knocks out power in one area, it can cause a ripple effect that results in failed power further inland. At its peak, Hurricane Sandy was responsible for over 8.5 million power outages, affecting areas as far inland as Michigan and Ohio. Flood waters on the coast can also contaminate rivers, creeks, and other tributaries that lead inland.
It’s also worth noting that hurricane season traditionally takes place between June 1st and November 30th, but the height of the season is from mid-August to mid-October. This should give all homeowners a definite time frame they can use to anticipate when they should do what. Scheduling out policy reviews, time for assembling a safety kit, and reviewing an evacuation plan, to name just a few concerns.
Remember that when it comes to the power of a hurricane, anyone remotely near its path faces risk. We can’t stress this enough. Realizing the seriousness of the threat of these megastorms is the motivator for taking the right steps beforehand.
Taking Action Ahead of a Hurricane
You can’t stop a hurricane, but you can properly prepare and act ahead of time.
FEMA recommends making a disaster supplies kit that can sustain your family for at least 72 hours.
The kit should include:
- One gallon of water per person per day – potable water is key to post-hurricane survival
- Enough food for three days
- A flashlight and extra batteries
- Local maps
- A manual can opener
- A wrench or pliers to turn off utilities
- Moist towelettes, garbage bags, and plastic ties for sanitation
- A first aid kit
- A whistle
- A NOAA Weather Radio with extra batteries
- A hand crank radio or battery-powered radio as a backup to the NOAA
- Plastic sheeting and duct tape to protect short-term shelter
- Dust masks to filter contaminated air
You can compare our hurricane survival kit to Weather.com’s Hurricane Survival kit.
Assume your home will lose power, water, gas, and cell phone service for several days or weeks. When a hurricane destroys essential infrastructure, it can take a long time to rebuild and reconnect services to homes, often years to fully recover.
You can prepare by stocking additional water, propane tanks, and any other fuel sources for generators. Remember that water can flood your basement. Don’t ever assume the basement is a safe place to store your essential items during the storm. Instead, consider ground floor storage units, storm-secure sheds or in rooms where these items can be securely elevated. Having access to a well thought out kit can really mean the difference between life and death. By assembling your kit now, you are taking the hurricane preparation step that will keep you the safest in extreme, fast-moving conditions.
Educate Your Family and Friends
The more your family and friends knows about hurricane safety, the more likely it is you will all survive the storm. It really is that urgent and simple of a point. Hurricanes impact entire communities – entire states. The leaders of at-risk communities can make a tremendous difference in the safety of many people by spreading awareness of the importance of being educated and alert.
If you live in an area that puts you at risk (even minimal risk), you should talk to friends and family about how to best respond to a tropical storm or hurricane.
Create an emergency evacuation plan so your family and pets can find each other and reach a safe location.
You can prepare for an evacuation by:
- Choosing a meeting point for the family, likely in a room without windows or the least amount of windows
- Covering windows ahead of time with shutters or plywood
- Making sure your kit is secure and transportable!
- Making sure heavy objects capable of moving in the storm are out of harm’s way
- Knowing where children and pets tend to hide when they get scared and how you will free someone in the house if they get trapped
- Having a carrier ready for pets
- Unplugging electrical equipment and shutting off dangerous utilities
- Closing and locking doors
- Identifying shelters, neighbors’ meeting points and other secure areas to retreat to if and when you must flee the home
- Having a car with a full tank of gas secure or an alternate vehicle, or even a pickup spot, established
- And always grasping the realities of hurricane scenarios yourself so you can be both calm and helpful around others
You can learn more about evacuation considerations on Louisiana.gov’s excellent hurricane evacuation page.
Stress in the Aftermath of a Hurricane
In the wake of a destructive hurricane, the decimation can feel insurmountable. Such strain affects all survivors. Parents will especially want talk to their kids about the experience. They may show signs of extreme stress. This stress is a normal part of coping with the traumas of such an intense experience. Some children may even experience PTSD after a storm.
Common signs of this level of distress include:
- Problems concentrating
- Difficulty sleeping
- Increased alertness
If these symptoms last longer than a few days, seek counseling for children. Don’t forget that you and the other adults in your life have also survived a traumatic experience. Adults may need counseling after hurricanes as well. Remember there is no fixed, normal time frame for PTSD – it can affect someone years down the road; it’s important to be sensitive to the seriousness of such disorders. You and your loved ones should never feel afraid or discouraged from seeking the help of medical professionals when facing PTSD-like stressors triggered by a hurricane.
Minimize Loss and Rebuild
If you live in a hurricane-prone area, don’t expect your homeowner’s policy to automatically cover everything you need. While your policy is likely to cover much of the damage, and relocation expenses, it’s important to understand specific hurricane policies, particularly the difference between hurricane deductibles and windstorm deductibles. These percentage-based deductibles will determine how much a homeowner will have to pay based on the nature and extent of the damage. Hurricane deductibles are the more extreme of the two, often requiring a storm to be a particular category when making landfall. When it does, damage caused by the storm will carry with it the corresponding deductible.
Windstorm coverage, on the other hand, is designed to protect against any wind damage. So, as always, it’s important to understand what your policy offers, the stipulations of the coverage (particularly important with hurricane specific protection) and the percentage deductible that comes with it.
But even if your homeowner’s policy covers wind damage in some form or another, it almost certainly doesn’t cover against floods, a major source of hurricane damage. Flood insurance is generally thought to apply to water damage of any kind. Because water damage can be so catastrophic and varied, insurers believe the risks are great enough to warrant it being its own expense to pay for on top of a standard policy
And living in an at-risk place will make your flood insurance deductible higher. If flooding damage is a frequent occurrence, even though you are protected, you will find your deductible calls for you to pay a larger percentage of repairs out of pocket. You may have a hard time convincing insurance companies to sell you a flood policy at all due to your area’s risk. If that’s the case, you can turn to the National Flood Insurance Program for help finding a policy.
In participating communities, the NFIP is there to ensure that everyone gets the flood protection they absolutely need. Anyone at-risk of hurricane damage will absolutely want flood protection; while this can seem pricier than necessary, comprehensive coverage is all that matters when living in such hurricane-prone parts of the country.
If you already have homeowner’s insurance, contact your agent to discuss how much coverage it offers. You may want to increase your coverage for more protection.
Your Home Before and After a Hurricane
There are a number of things you can do to your home well in advance of hurricane risks. Any number of retrofitting improvements are likely to make a significant difference when a dangerous storm hits. In fact, some safety measures, when relayed to your insurer, could help reduce the cost of your monthly premiums.
Here are just a few options to consider:
- Building a levee or floodwall
- Dry flood proofing your home
- Wet flood proofing your home
- Using plywood to secure windows and doors
You can find instructions and other ideas at The Weather Channel, FEMA and the State of Connecticut’s websites. If you find yourself motivated to pursue a particular project, be sure to consult an expert. Knowing exactly what to do every step of the way can make all the difference when it’s time for your home improvements to be tested by a major storm.
In the aftermath of a hurricane, you’ll want to try to contact your insurance provider as soon as possible after a storm. Don’t forget that thousands of other people are likely filing their own hurricane related claims. It may take weeks before your insurance company can adequately respond to you. Getting a jump on the process will buy you time for any unforeseen investigations and damage disputes; it’s also to help you get needed repairs in action all the sooner.
After a hurricane, you may need assistance from government and charity programs.
Useful organizations include:
- The American Red Cross
- The U.S. Small Business Administration
- State and local organizations
Hurricanes pose significant challenges, but communities can pull through by staying prepared and by seeking assistance when needed. The more you are able to learn about hurricanes, the more you are able to respond to their obvious danger. Sharing our guide is a small but invaluable way to teach your family and community how to make storm recovery as easy as possible.