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Is Your Home at Risk for a Natural Disaster? How to Check—and Prep

Nancy Mann Jackson

Millions of Americans have been hit by natural disasters in recent weeks. Hurricane Harvey brought record flooding to Texas. Hurricane Irma left almost 7 million Florida residents without power and is still wielding a path of destruction across the Southeast—and Hurricane Jose isn’t far behind.

On the West Coast, more than 20 active fires are burning in California, scorching thousands of acres and prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency in three counties.

It’s hard enough to deal with the emotional aftermath of a disaster, but a lot of people are also caught off guard financially. There’s the outlay from purchasing plywood and other materials to protect your home, evacuation expenses and potentially huge repair costs down the line.

Even if you're not in the path of a current storm or wildfire, you may be someday. Here’s what to do now to be sure you’re not caught unprepared.

1. Get the right insurance.

Damage from wildfires and winds is typically covered by standard homeowners and renters insurance policies, but damage from flooding and earthquakes isn’t.

To see if your area is at risk for either, check the U.S. Geological Survey’s seismic hazard maps or the FEMA site for areas likely to be affected by flooding. (The New York Times has also published maps covering a range of hazards from tornadoes to hurricanes and earthquakes.)

According to the National Flood Insurance Program, the average annual premium is $700 and the average payout is more than $40,000. FEMA offers detailed information about how and when to purchase flood insurance. 

If you’re in a wildfire-prone area, you may also live near the San Andreas fault line—meaning you may be at risk for an earthquake in your lifetime. (If you're in California, you can actually plug your address in on this state site to see what hazards may affect you.)

You can often purchase earthquake insurance as an add-on to your regular homeowners insurance or as a separate policy. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners has a detailed guide that explains how to buy insurance and what it does and doesn’t cover.

2. Top off your emergency fund.

The right insurance can offer peace of mind, but it takes time to get insurance payouts after filing a claim. So you also need your own money on hand.

If you don’t have an emergency fund, start now to build up three to six months’ worth of basic expenses—though even $1,000 could be enough to evacuate to a budget-friendly hotel and cover meals for a few days.

3. Keep cash and documents handy.

A widespread disaster could result in power outages, meaning you wouldn’t be able to use a debit or credit card. So set aside a few hundred in smalls bills just in case, stored in a fireproof, waterproof safe or box to ensure it will weather the storm.

In the same box, store important documents you’ll likely need to access to in case of emergency, such as copies of your passport and driver’s license, insurance policies, financial records and medical information. Keep this disaster kit in a place that’s easy to find and access.

4. Stay stocked up on essentials.

No matter when disaster may strike, it’s a good idea to keep certain items on hand at home, including: bottled water, a first aid kit, nonperishable foods (think canned beans and veggies that don’t need to be heated), flashlights and batteries.

And if disaster does strike...

Even if you’ve prepared in advance, there is much to be done when you’re actually affected by a natural disaster. Start by documenting any damage to your home or property by taking photos, videos and written notes. You’ll need to contact your insurance company to file a claim, and that information will help you provide everything needed to process it.

If your area is declared a federal disaster area, you may have access to a number of aid programs. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) can help with temporary housing, and other services like counseling, unemployment assistance, legal services and grants. When you apply for a FEMA grant, you’ll have to meet with an inspector (usually 10 to 14 days after your application) to determine whether you qualify, then wait for a decision.

Other agencies, like the Red Cross, churches and community groups may also be available to offer assistance. But being financially prepared to weather a disaster can help you avoid the waiting and worrying that’s common for many victims.

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