Now is the time to make sure you are prepared for a fire, storm or other emergency events that may lead to days without access to basic utilities or render your house uninhabitable. This includes making sure you have adequate insurance protection and an emergency survival plan in place.
Check Your Storm Protection -- Before the Storm
Following a disaster, many homeowners are stunned to discover their insurance doesn’t cover everything they lost – and sometimes doesn’t cover any of their losses. Take the time to fine-tune your coverage now – to avoid even more headaches should a disaster ever strike.
Standard homeowner policies do not cover flood damage from rising water, whether it’s coastal flooding from a hurricane’s wind-whipped storm surge or inland flooding from heavy rains. Special flood insurance may be your only protection from flooding. Even if flood insurance isn’t required by a lender because you no longer have a mortgage, think twice before forgoing flood protection.
Not all policies cover damage caused by wind or hail. Even if you are not in an area frequented by high wind and regular hail storms, you may want to consider this coverage. Your insurance agent can provide information on your current coverage as well as your options.
Standard policies usually limit payments on valuables such as jewelry, silverware, antiques, boats and guns, and computers. So if you’re a collector or have high-value possessions, you may need to get a special endorsement to ensure reasonable protection.
If you live in a condominium, find out what coverage your condominium association provides. You will still need your own homeowner’s policy to cover any damage that may occur to your unit and its contents. Pay attention to your deductible or out-of-pocket expenses. Most policies have a higher deductible for hurricane damage.
Does your policy cover the replacement cost or depreciated the value of your possessions? Most policies cover the “actual cash value,” or depreciated value, of personal belongings, which means you won’t get what you paid for your furniture, electronics, and clothing if they’re ruined. It costs more to insure them for their replacement value, but you’ll have an easier time getting back on your feet.
If your home and possessions have increased in value or you’ve made improvements to your property in recent years, check your coverage limits. Consider increasing your coverage if the policy doesn’t cover the current value of your home and its contents. Many policies make automatic adjustments as replacement costs increase; even so, you need to make sure your policy keeps pace.
Make an itemized inventory of your belongings, including costs, purchase dates, and serial numbers. Attach receipts to the inventory sheet. Your insurance company may require proof of the cost of any item for which you make a claim. Dated photos or videos of your possessions are also a good idea.
Keep a copy of insurance records in a safe deposit box or with a relative or friend. These records should include your insurance policy, inventory records and phone numbers for your agent or insurance company for reporting claims. Upon receiving an evacuation notice, you should take insurance records stored at home with you.
If your property is damaged, hire only licensed and reputable workers, preferably from within your community. Beware of fly-by-night repair businesses that request payment before the work is done.
Have a Plan in Place – for all Types of Emergencies
It’s also important to have an emergency plan in the event of a major storm or other disasters. Begin by putting a list together of what each occupant needs to know and do. This list should include a house escape plan, the locations of all emergency shut-offs for the home’s essential systems and emergency phone numbers. The emergency plan should also include the tools and other items such as fire extinguishers, flashlights, first aid kit, utility tools, food, water and food that may be needed during an event or for the days immediately afterward.
Once a plan is worked out and put on paper, tour the house and review key issues with all occupants so they know where everything is, and understand what needs to be done and under what circumstances.
First, review the escape plan so everyone is aware of the quickest and safest way to get through and out of the house. There should be a primary route and secondary escape plan for each room or area of the house. The need for ladders or other help for window access or egress and other special issues should be reviewed. The plan should also include a primary and secondary meeting location outside the house, and alternate ways to contact each other, including through someone outside the immediate area.
If the garage door has an electric opener, this should be disconnected from the door so the door can be manually opened should the power go out. This disconnect is usually identified by a cord hanging down from the bracket connecting the opener mechanism to the door. It should only be used when the door is in the down position.
Making sure everyone knows where the utility shut-offs are located is also very important to help prevent any fires or other incidents that could compound the extent of damage or injuries.
- Main Electrical Shut-off: This is the one that most often needs to be turned off, particularly in areas where the wiring is mostly above ground, due to falling trees and other wind damage that can occur. It is usually located in an electric panel in or outside the garage, or in a utility room or basement. There may be one single main circuit breaker or fuse to shut-off all the electricity in the house. But be careful as there may be multiple breakers that need to be turned off to shut down power for the whole house. Check any labeling that may be present but take some time now to confirm that it is accurate and tag or relabel the shut-offs as needed. If you are in an area regularly subject to storms and/or power outages, consider a generator.
- Gas Main shut off: This may be outside, usually on the street side of the house foundation at the gas meter, or if propane, at the tank. A wrench may be required to turn the gas valve off. Mark this shut-off as well
- Water Supply Shut-off: The water shut-off for municipal systems is usually in the basement or a utility room, but may also be outside at the street-side foundation. If water is supplied by a well, there should be a shutoff at or near the water tank.
- First Aid Supplies. General-purpose first aid kits can be purchased that include small amounts of most items needed. But also stock extra band-aids, wraps, and antiseptics, and antibacterial lotions. Include a few days supply of any critical medication and create a plan for anyone that may have special medical needs.
- Fire Extinguishers. All homes should have fire extinguishers. Best locations include the kitchen, garage and utility area, and anywhere there is a fireplace or stove. General-purpose extinguishers are best for homes; check labels carefully as some are designed only for specific type fires. Review fire extinguisher usage with all occupants. Also, have a hose available at outdoor faucet at all times (subject to winterization).
- Flashlights and Tools. Maintain a supply of flashlights, lanterns and extra batteries. Store some of the extra flashlights without batteries so that they are not damaged due to battery corrosion. Put together a toolkit with basic utility tools (hammer, screwdrivers, pliers, hand saws, tape, adhesives, rope, and nails. etc.) and keep it for emergency use only. Also include personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves, and rain gear, and several sets of clothing, just in case.
- Emergency Contacts. Maintain a list of emergency telephone numbers to contact the fire department, police, emergency services as well as key relatives, schools, employers and other helpful numbers. If certain cell towers or localized power outages occur in the immediate area, even if you have service it may not be possible to get in touch with your primary contacts, so additional emergency contacts should be set up for relatives or friends a distance away. Local health, police, fire department, and emergency management officials can provide additional information, particularly about special local issues.
Note: These tips are only general guidelines. Since each situation is different, contact a professional if you have questions about a specific issue.