We are just about at the halfway point of the hurricane season, which most forecasters have projected to be above average in intensity.
But aside from official start and end dates for a particular type of natural disaster, extreme weather is the new reality — and in all parts of the country, not just coastal regions. Now consider this frightening thought: It wasn’t a “named” hurricane or tropical storm that resulted in an estimated 150,000 damaged properties in the Baton Rouge area and flooded nearly one-third of the state of Louisiana.
Prolonged rainfall was the culprit, and that ended up being the worst disaster in the United States since the devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy. The torrential downfall that very recently washed out a sizable portion of historic Ellicott City, Md., is another example of the uncompromising damage that storms not classified as hurricanes can do to communities.
Essentially, what used to be considered “100-year storms” are now happening approximately every five years. Another eye-opener is that only 65 percent of the U.S. population is covered by model building codes. And when disaster does strike, often times in the rush to rebuild, homes and buildings are not completed up to local minimum building codes, and that in and of itself is a recipe for disaster.
The good news is that in recent years the design and construction industry has recognized that responding to these sets of natural challenges is a national imperative. In addition to advocating for effective land-use policies, modern building-code adoption and smarter infrastructure investment, we research materials and design techniques and construction procedures to make homes and buildings more resilient to these threats.
But what can you do as you consider the possibility of encountering a dangerous storm or disaster? Here are some tips to help prepare your home for the next one:
- Document your home before disaster strikes: Take photos of the inside and outside of your property and share them with your insurance company to have in its files; list rare and special items separately. Put extremely valuable items in a fireproof and waterproof safe or box.
- Familiarize yourself with your home’s construction: Know the age of your home and what kind of framing it has. Know how recently the roof has been repaired or replaced. All this will help guide you on what design changes or updates should be made to reinforce your home.
- Prioritize repair projects: Make easy and inexpensive fixes, and phase repairs, maintenance and retrofits so they are manageable. Use wind-resistant nailing patterns to secure roof sheathing. Consider what flying debris and storm water might do before reworking areas to minimize damage.
- Communicate your building performance goals: Make your desire for storm-resistant and resilient design elements known to your architect or contractor from the outset of a project, and include site selection, program and building life cycle in your conversations. Make sure that you are comfortable with their expertise in this area before proceeding with work.
- Designate a safe room in your home: This space can be used for certain hazards, including hurricanes, tornadoes and strong storms. Spaces that can be used for this purpose include a mud room, laundry room or even a powder room, and each can be strengthened. If you have a shelter in a low area, make sure you can get out in case of flooding. Consider multi-hazard possibilities, and ask your architect what you’d need to do to reinforce those spaces.
- Upgrade your safety standards in your renovation plans: Building codes are a life safety standard that afford only the bare minimum for the protection of property. Hazardous conditions may not be up to date in local maps and regulations to reflect current realities and risk. Any reworked areas or additions can be built to higher-strength standards — often for just a little more money than your planned budget, giving you a better alternative in a storm.
If you are making any big-picture construction or renovation plans, the best advice I can offer is to work only with a licensed architect, engineer or contractor. These professionals should be well-versed in the best practices to prevent destruction with cost-effective mitigation features and advanced planning.
Hurricane Katrina winds caused $8 billion in damage, and stronger building codes would have reduced this by 80 percent. The expression that an ounce of preparation is worth a pound of cure is especially true when it comes to natural disasters. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, every dollar spent on disaster mitigation saves $4 in rebuilding costs.
Design and building material fortifications are your best line of defense to protect your home, but you would also be well served to have a conversation with your insurance carrier — particularly if you can participate in the National Flood Insurance Program. So far this year, thunderstorms and hailstorms have caused the greatest insured property losses — up to $7 billion in damages.
Finally, proper preparation may help change a disaster into just a short-term uncomfortable event. Now is a great time to see where your homeowner’s insurance policy stands and to have your home evaluated with an overall risk assessment that an architect can provide, before the next time Mother Nature’s unpredictable fury strikes.
Tom Hurd is the chair of the American Institute of Architects Disaster Assistance Committee.