Hurricane Preparedness

7 Tips to Prepare Your Home and Belongings for This Hurricane Season

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June 23, 2020

As we move deeper into this hurricane season, we may feel uneasy, as many of our communities are struggling with the public health and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. While we cannot change the weather or stop hurricanes from forming, we can take specific actions to prepare ourselves and reduce the impacts of such storms. Read on for a list of seven tips to prepare your home and belongings for this hurricane season.

Tip #1: Clean out the drainage near your home

Take a walk around your neighborhood and look at the storm drains. You may find them clogged with debris, like grass clippings or branches.

In some cases, the debris is small enough that you and your neighbors can clean them out. If the debris is more cumbersome, a call to your local city public works department can help direct them to blocked drains. Services in many cities have been operating at reduced capacity, so a phone call about a drainage problem can help provide valuable direction to your city staff.

Vegetation along a waterway in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, during July 2019. Overgrown vegetation can impede drainage along canals, bayous, and streams. Photo: Dr. Hal Needham

Also take a look at the maintenance of trees and brush if you own land along a stream, creek, or bayou. Overgrown brush along water channels can impede water drainage on your property and back water up towards your house. An annual walkthrough and basic maintenance can help reduce your flood risk.

Tip #2: Make sure “contents” are covered in your flood insurance policy

While doing field work in Biloxi, Mississippi, several months ago, I befriended a resident who experienced Hurricane Katrina’s horrific flood. I asked him for the biggest lesson he learned. He replied, “I wish I had known that some flood insurance policies do not cover contents.”

Many people pay an insurance premium and assume this covers both the structure of the building and contents, like furniture and appliances. Unfortunately, after a flood strikes, they find out that contents were not covered in their plan.

Review your policy and reach out to your flood insurance agent to make sure your coverage includes contents. While we can’t stop the storms from coming, we can do our homework before they hit to make sure we are not blindsided this hurricane season.

A home after Hurricane Harvey caused catastrophic flooding in Texas and Louisiana, 2017.

Tip #3: Get a supply of water and nonperishable foods NOW

This is an important planning step every hurricane season, but even more important this year because of the pandemic.

Empty grocery store shelves in Biloxi, Mississippi, in March 2020. As people stock up on supplies before an expected disaster, stores may run out of important items. Stock up on water and non-perishable food before a hurricane is approaching the coast. Photo: Dr. Hal Needham

You don’t want to wait until a storm is two days off the coast to get supplies. Stores tend to get more and more crowded until they close and you don’t want to put yourself in a crowded store environment during a pandemic.

Also, a consistent theme I’ve heard this year, all along the coast, is that people are more likely to shelter-in-place and fewer people will likely evacuate from hurricanes and tropical storms. This puts additional strain on local resources near the coast, as people that may have driven inland last year may stay near the coast this year.

Tip #4: Trim tree branches and communicate with neighbors about dangerous trees

Shade trees, like oaks, provide blessed comfort from the sun’s burning rays in the southern states. But these same trees can threaten our lives and property during a hurricane.

A stately oak tree extends branches towards a house in Galveston, Texas. Photo: Hal Needham

Take a walk around your property and look for any tree branches that could scrape your roof or siding in windy conditions. Beware of any overhanging branches that look weak or could possibly fall on your house when winds pick up. Even tropical-storm-force winds (39 mph+) are strong enough to bring down tree branches or move them erratically so they scrape your house.

Also remember that if your neighbor’s tree threatens to damage your home, you are not powerless. If the tree concerns you, have a friendly discussion with your neighbor. It’s possible that he or she didn’t notice or was unaware of the danger. In some cases, the neighbor will pay to remove or trim the tree. I’ve also heard of neighbors splitting the cost of tree removal.

If your neighbor isn’t cooperative with your concern, taking photos of the tree and providing a certified letter of concern to your neighbor could help you immensely in the legal/ financial process if the tree were to fall on your house. But if you don’t say anything, you may not have much of a case.

Tip #5: Get a battery-powered radio

When I was in Panama City, Florida, during and after Hurricane Michael in 2018, I had a conversation with a man who was running a disaster relief center from his church. I asked him what he learned in the storm.

He told me, “Hal, I can’t believe I was blindsided this time. We’ve become so reliant on smartphones and I never thought of what I would do if we lost phone service.”

Extensive wind damage cut electricity and cell phone service during Hurricane Michael in 2018. This picture shows damage in Panama City, FL. Photo: Dr. Hal Needham

In Michael’s aftermath, not only was the power cut for an extended time, but many people lost cell phone service for more than one week. Important disaster-related information is shared on the radio during these times. This includes information like curfew details, FEMA supply giveaways, Red Cross food and water distribution, advice on where water should be boiled, and where to apply for storm relief from FEMA and other organizations.

If you live within 100 miles of the U.S. Gulf or Atlantic Coasts, you should really have a battery-powered radio to keep you plugged in with crucial information should you lose electricity and/or cell phone service this hurricane season.

Tip #6: Know your home elevation

Did you know that the home elevation you see on your elevation certificate is not the elevation above sea level, but rather an imaginary line called a datum? Sea levels are usually higher than datum elevations, meaning that your house is probably not as high above the water as you think.

Flood waters rise under an elevated home in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, during Tropical Storm Cristobal, in June 2020. Knowing the elevation of your home can help protect lives and property. Photo: Dr. Hal Needham

In a storm situation, this may cause you to underestimate the flood risk of your home. Check out my previous blog post titled, “Life-Saving Information about Your Home Elevation in the Context of Coastal Floods.”

From years of working with coastal communities, I’ve learned that it’s wise to build an additional elevation buffer between your home and the water, whether you’re undergoing new construction or considering safety measures with an incoming storm.

Tip #7: Organize a few boxes of valuable possessions to take with you on evacuation

From 2010–2013, I lived in a neighborhood in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that was filled with Hurricane Katrina refugees from the coastal parishes near New Orleans. I learned a lot about hurricane impacts from my neighbors in this community.

A married couple in their 80s lived across the street; they relocated from Chalmette, a community that was very hard hit from Katrina’s storm surge. As this couple shared their lives, the woman shared a heartbreaking story with me.

She was the “queen” of the local Mardi Gras parade one year, and her crown and pictures from this event were among her prized possessions. Unfortunately, she lost these treasures forever because she left them on the ground floor of her home, not expecting storm surge would inundate their home with 12 feet of muddy water.

Satellite image of Hurricane Katrina. As this intense hurricane approached the Gulf Coast, many people evacuated, leaving precious possessions at ground level, not expecting flood waters to inundate their home. Image: NOAA

The story of my dear neighbor reminds me that many personal treasures are small and can be transported from a disaster zone, such as photo albums, small gifts from relatives, trophies, and awards. Consider putting such irreplaceable items into one or two plastic bins that you can take with you if floods threaten your home this hurricane season.

Include important financial and medical records, passports, tax records, or other items that would be difficult or impossible to replace. I cannot count how many times people have told me they were shocked that their home flooded because “this never happened before.” As we prepare for the unexpected, we will be happy we spent a few hours safeguarding our precious possessions.