Memorial Day marks the start of Washington’s long-awaited, laid-back summer stretch. But between the backyard barbecues, family reunions and dips in the pool, danger could be one spark or one bad forecast away. Do you know where your flashlights are?
●Preparing for disaster, whether flood, wind, fire or power outage, isn’t as fun as planning your trip to Rehoboth. And as Oklahoma’s recent tornadoes have shown us, a major disaster can devastate a community despite the most elaborate of preparations. But you gotta do it. Our summer emergency guide is packed with good advice from experts and safety specialists. They said that if you prepare ahead of time, you will be less stressed if and when disaster strikes. And if this year is anything like the last few, which brought us earthquakes, Hurricane Sandy and that nasty derecho, we have some rough days ahead.●
●So get familiar with your gutters and get over how your hair looks when you’re wearing a headlamp. Trim that dead branch hanging over your neighbor’s deck before it’s too late. Discuss a disaster plan for evacuation and sheltering in place with your family. Prepare more, worry less. So when everyone else is out scavenging bottled water, you can sit on your deck and savor one last margarita before the next summer emergency.
How to protect your home from high winds
When the winds pick up, whether it’s a hurricane or a garden-variety summer storm, your home and trees will be vulnerable.
Wind can start to damage small limbs and branches at 39 mph, according to the Beaufort Wind Scale, and at 64 mph, widespread structural damage is possible. The winds in the Moore, Okla., tornado this week were about 200 mph, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admistration.
When there are warnings about tornadoes or high winds, says Mel Pine, an Allstate agency owner in Purcellville, homeowners should take them seriously and find shelter.
Identify a room in your home where you will be safe during high winds. It should be an interior room on the lowest level of your house, away from any windows.
“The more walls between you and the outside, the better you will be,” says Adam Polak, a spokesman for Allstate.
Inspect your roof, windows and doors now, Pine says. Repair or replace any loose, damaged or missing shingles, and check the attic for swollen wood or moisture that could indicate a leak in the roof. Make sure the caulking on your windows and door jambs is in good condition, he said.
Pine also suggests upgrading to heavy-duty bolts on your doors to make them less likely to blow off in high winds. He said doors that open out are stronger than doors that open to the inside.
Have a mental checklist of any loose patio furniture, garden umbrellas or outdoor equipment that could blow around in high winds, and secure it before a storm.
Wind is Mother Nature’s way of pruning, says Mark Buscaino, the executive director of Casey Trees, a non-profit dedicated to protecting and restoring trees in the District. Check your trees now for potential hazards. Any branches more than six inches in diameter that hang over your home (or your neighbor’s home) should be taken down if they look dead or damaged, Buscaino says.
If you are not sure about a tree or limb, he says, call a certified arborist to get an inspection. Casey Trees also offers free classes on protecting the urban forest and evaluating tree risk. Visit its Web site at caseytrees.org/events for a class schedule.
Prepare now for summer power outages
After being victims of the top two power outages in the United States in 2012 — the derecho and Hurricane Sandy — Washington area residents might be warily eyeing this year’s storm season, which, in the case of hurricanes, starts June 1.
And who can blame them? More than 3.8 million people in the District, Maryland and Virginia lost power at some point last year, according to the 2012 Blackout Tracker Report from Eaton, a power management company. Some were without electricity for as much as a week after the June derecho.
“It’s not if you are going to lose power, it’s really a matter of when,” says David Botkins, a spokesman for Dominion Virginia Power.
Waldorf resident Bill Swanson, 66, was glad he had a generator when the derecho knocked out his power for three days last summer, because stores quickly sold out as people scrambled to power their homes in record heat. An experienced boater and longtime resident of the Washington area, Swanson says he has learned over time that it’s better to be prepared.
“We’re kind of used to the weather patterns in this area and . . . always thinking about it and looking for storms,” Swanson says. “Once you’ve lived through a three-foot snowstorm in this area and been paralyzed for a week, you kind of learn what to do and how important it is to take some precautions.”
Stock up on flashlights, batteries, water and food, in addition to any medical supplies you might need. Botkins also recommends homeowners invest in a battery-operated radio so they can listen to weather reports and news alerts during an outage.
Have one gallon of water per person per day for at least three days, Botkins says. Also stock food for several days for everyone in the family and your pets. Botkins also suggests having a couple of cans of gasoline to fuel your car in case local filling stations lose power.
If you have a well or septic system that runs on electricity, have extra water to flush toilets, says Lance Gregory of the Virginia Health Department. Filling your bathtub in advance is fine for flushing toilets, but if you are going to use that water for washing hands, brushing teeth, cooking or drinking, Gregory says, boil it first to decontaminate it.
Check your battery supplies now, Duracell spokesman Win Sakdinan says. Everyone should have plenty of batteries in sizes AA, AAA, C and D. Sakdinan says it’s a good idea to have enough to power your radios and flashlights for a week. And make sure you have flashlights or headlamps for every person in the home to have his own, he said.
Fully charge your smartphone, tablet and laptop, and consider getting an Internet router that runs on batteries. Conserve energy in these devices by turning them off when you aren’t using them or putting them in battery conservation modes, Sakdinan said.
And when your power goes out, Botkins said, your first move should be to report the outage to your electric company. Don’t assume your neighbors have already called.
Maintenance can prevent basement flooding
If you don’t want to walk down to the basement to find photo albums and cat food bowls floating, check your gutters now.
Heavy rains can cause flooding, which can lead to serious structural and other damage to your home. Water can ruin drywall, carpeting, furniture and major appliances, and can cause mold to grow.
The two major causes of basement floods are neglect of routine home maintenance and poor drainage, according to experts. “The number one thing is to keep gutters functional. They shouldn’t sag or spill and should be kept clean of debris,” says J.D. Grewell, a Silver Spring home inspector. “Downspouts should not be damaged, and once water gets to the ground, it should have a splash pad at the bottom of each downspout or a drain to get water away from the foundation.”
Washington’s leafy neighborhoods create challenges. “This time of year, you drive around and see stuff growing out of gutters. Some people think gutters should be cleaned only in the fall, but in many cases they need to be cleaned two to four times a year,” says Tom Gilday, vice president of Gilday Renovations in Silver Spring. Gilday also cautions homeowners not to pile too much mulch around a foundation, because it can cause water to seep into basement walls.
Inspect window wells. “I have seen window wells after a rainstorm that look like aquariums,” Gilday says. “Keep them cleaned out and put a layer of gravel in the bottom. Consider clear plexiglass covers.”
Other ways to prepare for the rainy season:
●If you have a sump pump, test it to make sure it’s working; you might want to invest in a battery backup.
●Consider elevating your furnace, water heater, washer, dryer and electrical panel to raise them out of water’s way.
●Be meticulous about keeping outside stairwell drains clear.
●Stock cleaning supplies: rubber gloves, a mop, a wet vac, a dehumidifier and fans.
●De-clutter your basement: Move important documents upstairs and replace cardboard boxes with plastic containers. Raise items up on concrete blocks.
●Check with an insurance agent about your flood risk and get information about the National Flood Insurance Program, administered by FEMA, by going to www.floodsmart.gov.
As much as you prepare, you can’t always predict where water might show up. Katie and Frank Hopkins moved into their first home, a 1930s Cape Cod in Arlington, the day after the 2012 June derecho. When the warnings about Hurricane Sandy came in, they stocked up on food and water and loaded flashlights with fresh batteries. They cleaned out the basement, figuring it might leak. Then they heard water splashing upstairs: The light fixture in their spare bedroom was dripping water from a leak in the flashing under a dormer window. “We thought we had prepared and were ready,” says Katie Hopkins. “You can never know what is going to happen.”
Fire hazards during grilling season
The smell of burgers wafting from a neighbor’s back yard is one of the earliest signs of spring. But as people dust off their grills and gather around fire pits, they should carefully inspect their equipment and go over safety tips with their families to help prevent fires.
“The best advice we have is to make sure to keep grills and anything with an open flame on it, whether tiki torches, citronella candles or firepits, away from anything combustible,” says Gregg A. Karl, a captain in the Arlington County Fire Prevention Office.
Gathering around a fire, whether at an outdoor kitchen, a chiminea or a stone outdoor fireplace, is a growing part of entertaining, according to Lorraine Carli, spokeswoman for the National Fire Protection Association. “You should follow a lot of the same safety tips with these as with grills. Never leave them unattended and make sure that the fire is totally out before you leave them at the end of the event.” And never use a grill in a garage.
Four out of five families own a grill and barbecue at least once a week in the summer, according to Deborah Hanson, spokeswoman for First Alert, manufacturer of safety products. “We suggest a three-foot zone around the grill, whether it’s charcoal or propane,” Hanson says. “Keep kids and pets away and keep it away from siding, deck railings or overhanging branches. Clean the grill regularly and always remove the grease buildup from the trays underneath.”
Chris Hartley, vice president of marketing for Blue Rhino, a propane tank exchange company, says consumers should test propane grills for leaks. He suggests a solution of water and dishwashing detergent applied to spots where there is a connection between the grill and the tank. “If you see bubbles, you have a leak, and you have to take action and seek repairs,” he says.
Keep a fire extinguisher around, even if you’re not grilling. And “know how to use it ahead of time so you aren’t fooling around trying to figure that out when you need it,” Carli says.
If a fire breaks out in your back yard, Karl says to first call 911 before trying to fight it. “We would rather come out and make sure the fire did not extend out,” Karl says, “than come back two hours later with people trapped in the house because they did not call when it initially happened.”