Al Heavens is a Haddonfield, N.J.- based, nationally syndicated, home-improvement writer and author whose newspaper columns, magazine articles and books have been the first word on remodeling for 50 million readers for more than three decades. He is the author of What No One Ever Tells You About Renovating Your Home and Remodeling On The Money: Fifteen Innovative Projects Designed to Add Value to Your Home, and was “The Gadgeteer” on Discovery Channel’s Home Matters program.
I’m glued to The Weather Channel, watching Hurricane Laura make landfall in Louisiana, well west of New Orleans, which, as we recall, has had more than its share of storm-related grief over the last few years.
I’m thinking back to 2005, to Hurricane Katrina. I had visited New Orleans for business twice before 2005, and both times I was impressed, not only by its marvelous cuisine but even more by the fact that I had to look up to see the Mississippi River flowing past the levee where I was standing.
I went back to New Orleans in November 2006. More than 14 months after Katrina, the city was struggling to recover. One evening I was at a cocktail party on the 33rd floor of the World Trade Center on Canal Street, right at the edge of the French Quarter.
The keynote speaker looked out at the city below.
“Tonight you are able to look around and see lights,” he said. “That may not seem to be a big thing, but on Feb. 1 , there wasn’t a light to be found. Just imagine, total complete darkness wherever you looked.”
Fourteen months after Katrina, whole swaths of the region remained in total darkness.
In this article, we’ll discuss how severe weather can damage your home and what you should do to be prepared.
It has been hurricane season since June 1, and it will be so until Nov. 30. The August update from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has projected an “extremely active” season, noting that there were a record nine named storms by early August, compared with the normal two.
It usually takes until Oct. 4 to have nine named storms, NOAA said. The average season has 12 named storms, but this year, the agency is predicting 19 to 25. Three to six will be “major” hurricanes.
Of course, the pandemic will complicate any “disaster preparedness plan you had in place, including what is in your go-kit, evacuation routes, shelters and more,” says Carlos Castillo, an official with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Because of COVID-19, Castillo recommends that you alter whatever emergency procedures you normally follow.
Does anyone really have emergency plans? For most of us, the unpredictability of hurricanes means that we end up cursing Jim Cantore for forcing us to load up on giant-size bags of ice that melted while we waited for a hurricane that never came.
Don’t fool yourself. A huge number of people in New Orleans didn’t take Katrina seriously until it was much too late, and we saw the death and suffering that resulted.
My first real childhood memory was of the Great Connecticut Flood of Aug. 19, 1955, when two back-to-back hurricanes, Connie and Diane, dropped nearly 20 inches of rain on the state in a week, resulting in what a newspaper reporter in a helicopter the following day described as “a staggering toll of death in a shroud of mud.”
As a five-year-old, I watched from a hill above a raging river that left parts of the city below under 35 feet of water flowing 50 miles an hour. While I watched, a huge tank that had fed natural gas to thousands of customers broke loose, sliced a bridge in half, then exploded.
This past June, as the result of a thunderstorm-spawned, straight-line wind phenomenon known as a “derecho,” we lost power for four days. In August, when tropical storm Isias scraped past the New Jersey coast, we lost power for 50 hours when a tree down the street fell, taking utility lines with it.
We have lived in our house for 19 years. Until June, we had never lost power for more than a few minutes, even during Hurricane Sandy. We are worried enough to have acquired a small generator and are looking to replace our perfectly good sump pump with one that has a battery backup.
Hurricanes, or storms of any kind for that matter, typically uncover problems with our homes. Some of these are truly surprises, while many are things we know exist but have continued to ignore.
One much-ignored problem is drainage. I’m a stickler for clean gutters and downspouts, and I often stand out of doors in torrential downpours to make sure that the water is draining away from the foundation rather than toward it. Water finds its lowest point, and that means the basement. If there is even a hairline crack in the foundation, seepage over time will open the crack wider and wider, and when the kind of heavy rain accompanying a hurricane arrives, the drip will likely become a flood.
That level of water intrusion will take out your HVAC system, washer and dryer, water heater and just about everything of value you had been storing in what seemed to be a bone-dry basement. If the basement has been finished, wet drywall, carpeting and flooring will need to be replaced.
That’s what happened in August, when Isaias dropped, according to the National Weather Service, six to eight inches of rain on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River. My Italian-language teacher sent me a desperate email, hoping that I knew of a masonry contractor who could dig a French drain in her back yard so that her basement might be spared another flood in the future.
“My husband knows how to replace drywall, but we may have to pull up the floor and have a new one put in,” she said, adding, “He had decided we didn’t need flood insurance, and we will have to pay for everything out of pocket.”
I don’t live in a FEMA-designated flood zone; if I did, my mortgage lender would have required federally backed flood insurance as a condition of my home loan. The previous owners of my house spent thousands of dollars on a system of perimeter and French drains that directs rainwater from the edges of the foundation to the sump, where it is pumped out into the yard and well away from the house.
The sump pump is the Achilles heel, however, which is the reason why I am looking into alternatives to keep it running if we lose power for as long as we have this summer.
After our second power outage, I also asked my insurance agent to explain our homeowner’s policy coverage – specifically if a prolonged power failure disabled the sump pump and water filled the basement.
The response: Our policy has an endorsement protecting us from the back-up of water and sewage, but there is a $10,000 limit, minus the deductible, to cover damages. We are trying to have that limit increased to $20,000, which we have determined would cover our losses adequately.
You also should check your policy to determine your hurricane deductible. Recent hurricanes, including Sandy, have made landfall in New Jersey as tropical storms, so the deductible didn’t apply. There is no guarantee of a near-miss the next time.
Even though Sandy came ashore at Brigantine, N.J., as a tropical storm with hurricane-force winds, according to the National Weather Service, it did little to reduce the level of damage.
The time to prepare is now, not 24 hours before the storm arrives, when the gas lines are miles long and the home-improvement stores have run out of plywood.
You should always have an emergency kit and a family communication plan in hand well in advance, especially since winds can topple cell towers and cut power needed to charge mobile phones.
You also should be aware of hurricane evacuation routes, which are available online from the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management (www.ready.nj.gov); in Pennsylvania at www.dvprc.org; and Delaware (www.deldot.gov), as well as government-operated shelters.
It is possible to retrofit your home to deal with not only hurricanes and tropical storms but blizzards as well.
The bottom line is that, as a storm churns up the coast, you will need to secure your property. Windows are especially vulnerable, and hurricane shutters are the best way to protect them. They can be permanent or temporary and are best installed by professionals. Permanent shutters can be very attractive and will reduce the amount of work you’ll need to do in an emergency.
In addition, many new windows are designed to be impact-resistant. I once watched a test of Simonton windows that didn’t shatter when struck by a two-by-four traveling at 95 miles an hour, for example.
You also can cover the windows with 5/8ths-inch plywood sheets, fastening them with corrosion-resistant screws at least two inches long to the studs closest to the sides and bottoms of the windows. Using screws instead of nails makes them easier and cleaner to remove after the storm passes.
Taping the windows in the form of an “X” with duct tape doesn’t make them any stronger, and can, according to the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, make the shards of glass larger and more deadly.
Have a professional check to see how well your roof is secured to the walls of your house. Many building codes in storm-prone communities, especially near the coast, require the use of hurricane straps or clips made of galvanized or stainless-steel to handle, as the manufacturer puts it, the characteristics of “repeated, dynamic and fluctuating loads” caused by the winds accompanying any storm. These straps and clips can be used in the construction of new or retrofitting existing homes.
Garage doors are extraordinarily vulnerable. Many manufacturers make garage doors designed to meet or exceed wind-code requirements for Florida, the Carolinas and Texas that are attractive as well. Garage-door failure can result in serious and expensive structural damage, especially if the garage is attached to the house.
You can also have steel braces installed to reinforce existing garage doors, which is another job better handled by professionals.
Keep trees and shrubs around the house trimmed so that they are more wind-resistant. This is truly a job for a professional tree person.
Finally, consider a portable generator. They come in all varieties, from gas-driven portables that can power up a few necessary appliances to whole-house units that operate on natural gas or propane.
Whatever you decide, it should be safety first. Never use a generator indoors or in an attached garage. Manufacturers and safety experts recommend keeping the generators at least 20 feet from the house, away from any and all air intakes, but also keep them protected from rain and snow – under a canopy, an open shed or a carport, if the location meets the safe-distance rule.
Taking these measures will help prevent your home from serious damage as we face what could be another heavy storm season.