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When it comes to being prepared for the next hurricane, tornado, earthquake or flood, millions of homeowners are flirting with disaster. A phone survey last year by the American Red Cross asked respondents whether they had put together a supply kit of some sort to handle a potential disaster. Only 40 percent said they had. A slightly higher percentage said they had a plan in mind if disaster strikes.
The survey didn't get into the details of how well these residents are actually prepared. But at best, the survey suggests that fewer than half of all homeowners have made a meaningful effort to be ready for an incident that could threaten their property, their families or even their lives.
This lack of preparedness might seem surprising, especially when you consider that hardly a region of the country was untouched last year by hurricanes, floods, wildfires or tornadoes. Terrorism, meanwhile, looms as an unpredictable threat. Preparing our homes and families for emergencies, natural or otherwise, just seems like common sense these days.
It may just be, as the Red Cross suggests, that most Americans are busy rushing through their daily lives and simply haven't taken the time to get ready for emergencies. But with so much at stake, now may be the right time to take action to disaster-proof your home.
A Two-Part Process
It's not possible to protect your home from every disaster, so think of disaster-proofing as a two-part process. The first part is to be prepared for emergencies - to have a communication plan and materials in place to keep yourself and your family safe if disaster strikes. That means having enough food, water and other supplies to last at least three days. It also means updating your plan and adjusting your supplies over time, as situations change.
The second part is to make your home as resistant as possible to potential disasters through mitigation. That could mean installing window shutters in hurricane country or using flame-resistant building materials where wildfires spread.
Think of preparedness as a way to protect yourself. Think of mitigation as a way to protect your property.
Where You Live
Keith Robertory thinks a lot about these issues. He's a disaster-education expert with the American Red Cross. His job is to encourage people to change their behaviors by helping them understand the risks they face where they live.
Robertory uses a comparison to put disaster preparedness in perspective. An estimated 90 percent of Americans have smoke alarms in their homes. The findings that fewer than half have a disaster plan suggests a lack of appreciation for other emergencies. One reason may be that natural disasters are local or regional in nature, while house fires are a universal threat. But every homeowner should be able to identify the chief threats in their area and put together a plan to respond to them, Robertory says.
A good place to start is on the Internet at: http://www.redcross.org . Click the "Get Prepared" link on the left, then click "Home" and you'll find a list of 16 categories of emergencies, from blackouts and earthquakes to floods and winter storms. The Red Cross has shifted this educational resource online so it can be continually updated. "Two years ago," Robertory says, "no one cared about tsunami."
Of course, homeowners in Florida don't need to be ready for winter storms, just as folks in Maine don't worry much about earthquakes. But power interruptions can happen anywhere, and the fact sheet on short-term power outages, or "rolling blackouts," offers some thoughtful advice.
For instance: Most people know to have essentials on hand, such as a flashlight, batteries, a portable radio and a gallon of water. But if you have an electric garage door opener, do you know how to activate the manual release lever? Do you have at least one corded telephone headset, since cordless units won't work without electricity? Do you back up computer files and turn off equipment that's not in use?
Another measure every homeowner should take is to have a disaster kit. This is more than just a few essentials squirreled away in the kitchen pantry. Both the American Red Cross and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security suggest that people also maintain a portable kit, something that fits in a duffle bag or backpack and could be grabbed quickly in the event of an evacuation.
What to stock? The Red Cross suggests six basics: Water, food, first aid supplies, clothing and bedding, tools and emergency supplies, and special items for infants or people with medical conditions. The Red Cross website has an extensive list of items to consider under each category.
Another matter is how long these supplies should last. Before Hurricane Andrew slammed into Florida in 1992, most authorities recommended having enough food, water and other supplies on hand for three days. The assumption was that help would arrive or services would be res-tored within 72 hours. But after Hurricane Andrew - and certainly since Hurricane Katrina - it has become clear that people may need to fend for themselves without food, water and electricity for several days or even weeks.
As a baseline, 72 hours is still a good duration for which to shoot. A website geared toward residents of the earthquake-prone San Francisco area, http://www.72hours.org , lays out the basics for making a plan and building a kit for that time span. The federal government's website, http://www.ready.gov , is an alternative resource.
A kit provides the raw materials, but to make sure you and your family are safe, experts recommend developing a disaster plan. Meet as a family. Talk about potential dangers such as fire or severe weather, and discuss what to do in each case. Agree on places to meet following a disaster. Outside your house would be a good choice following a fire, but you'll also need a place away from your neighborhood if your home is destroyed. Designate a friend or family member who lives outside the area as a contact person. That creates a place for all family members to call and check in. Above all, practice your plan periodically, experts say, especially if you have children.
You and your family will stand a better chance of enduring a disaster, and perhaps avoiding the need to leave home, if you've taken steps to harden your house against the most likely problems. Preparing your house for a disaster can range from simple, cost-free actions, such as making sure your rain gutters aren't clogged so they won't back up, to spending thousands of dollars to repair a roof or install impact-resistant windows.
The apparent increased frequency of wild weather and growing public interest in preparedness is spawning a new generation of products aimed at home disaster-proofing. But what makes sense at your house? Protection can be a balancing act. Some improvements can increase the value of your home. Others may lower your insurance premiums. Some could do both.
A dominant trend in disaster-proofing products is the use of technology to improve on time-honored concepts - take storm shutters in hurricane country, for instance. Many people are familiar with the metal shutters that roll down or unfold accordion-style over windows. And almost everyone has seen news footage of homeowners securing plywood to their windows and doors prior to a storm.
A new product called Fabric-Shield Storm Panels aims to protect windows from wind and rain without blocking out light. Made from PVC-coated woven fabric, the panels are easy to put up and remove, and are secured by anchors over windows and doors during a storm. Their manufacturer, Wayne-Dalton Corp. ( http://www.wayne-dalton.com ), based in Mount Hope, Ohio, is selling them from New England to the Mexican border.
The panels perform as well as steel shutters in stopping wind-driven debris, according to Mike George, a sales manager for the company's storm-protection products group in Pensacola, Fla. And they are starting to draw interest from coastal homeowners who live away from the water and didn't think they needed storm shutters, he says. "Hurricane Katrina proved that 10 miles from the coast you can still need wind-borne protection."
Until recently, Fabric- Shield has been solely a professionally installed option, ranging in price from $8 to $12 a square foot. It's now becoming available to homeowners for the do-it-yourself market through window and storm shutter dealers. The cash and carry price will be less.
Homeowners in the Midwest need disaster-proofing as much as those who live on the coast. Residents of Tornado Alley have long relied on safe rooms - reinforced interior shelters - in their homes to escape damaging storms. Now DuPont is selling a Kevlar-reinforced shelter called StormRoom, which is designed to stand up to 250-mph wind speeds.
StormRoom comes in various rectangular configurations starting at 5-by-7 feet. Installed prices range from $6,500 to $14,000. The work is done only by authorized installers who secure the shelter to the home's concrete foundation.
Laura Dwyer, a business manager for StormRoom at Dupont, says sales are up 200 percent since the product was introduced last year in Florida. One cautionary note: StormRoom isn't meant to be a safe haven from rising water in flood zones. "We tell people it's not a submarine," Dwyer says. "If the water's rising, you must get out." To learn more: http://www.stormroom.dupont.com .
Safe rooms can also be built from scratch or added to existing homes - and at least one state government is helping to offset the cost. Mississippi announced earlier this year that it has partnered with federal officials on a $6.6 million grant program called "A Safe Place to Go." Homeowners can get up to $3,500 for structures that meet Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or other standards for withstanding tornadoes.
This level of extreme disaster proofing won't be right for most homes. But aside from lowering insurance premiums and increasing resale value, some disaster proofing may just contribute to peace of mind. It's hard to put a value on that.
Tux Turkel is a freelance writer based in Yarmouth, Maine. He writes regularly for Smart HomeOwner.