Sadly, it wouldn't be inaccurate to call 2017 the year of natural disasters. California's firestorms claimed 54 lives and left behind $18 billion in damage. Hurricanes Maria, Irma, and Harvey along the Gulf of Mexico killed 251 people directly and left behind $265 billion in destroyed property and infrastructure. Flooding in Missouri and Arkansas left 20 people dead. Tornados in the Western U.S. killed 24 people.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that there were more than 16 disasters that exceeded $1 billion in losses last year. Experts warn that extreme weather is becoming less and less rare. Harvey, Katrina, and other major hurricanes that have struck in the last 14 years are supposed to be rare, but we're seeing far more of them than weather researchers believe is normal. Perhaps we need to revisit what constitutes a "100-year" or "500-year" storm.
Regardless, it's vital for us to start facing facts: we all need to be better prepared to face a natural disaster. Harvey hit us close to home; one of our attorneys had a flooded home, just like many of our neighbors in Houston's floodplains or in communities downstream from Lake Conroe. Even if we're never hit like that again, there are things we can do to make sure we're better equipped to face the storm.
Get an Emergency Safety Kit
The first and best thing you can do for yourself (and your family) is to assemble an emergency safety kit, commonly known as a "bug-out bag." The idea behind the BOB is that it contains everything you might need to survive for the first 72 hours after a disaster.
Ready.gov has a handy list of everything you'll need in your bug-out bag:
- 1 gallon of water per person, per day
- 3 days' worth of non-perishable food
- Battery-powered or hand-crack radio
- NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert
- First aid kit
- Extra batteries
- Whistles (to signal for help)
- Dust mask (to filter contaminated air)
- Hand wipes, garbage bags, and plastic ties (for personal waste)
- Wrench or pliers (for turning off utilities)
- Manual can opener
- Local maps
- Cell phone with chargers
- Backup phone battery
The list here only includes general, basic items. If you're a parent, have a medical condition, own pets, or have special needs of any kind, you'll need to include more items. Ready.gov also has a list of secondary items that you'll want to keep safe, like family documents and utensils for eating. Visit Ready.gov to learn more. If you want to get a bug-out bag immediately, some companies have pre-made bug-out bags that offer virtually every tool you'll need to survive a natural disaster. For instance, Uncharted Supply Co. offers a bag for $350 that includes an air filtration mask, first aid kit, shovel, a water filtration system, and much more.
Buy or Install a Safe Room / Storm Shelter
In the Midwest, tornado-prone areas have created a market for modular, easy-to-install storm shelters. These rooms often go for $5,000 to $10,000, and some of them double as gun vaults and come with other disaster-prep features. Some can fit up to 6 people at a time.
While many people might balk at those prices, there are no documented fatalities for anyone who was in a safe room (either above or below ground). Experts note that if you do buy or build a safe room, you'll need to make sure it's tested to FEMA standards. They also want families to know that below-ground safe rooms run the risk of being buried or trapped under debris. In 2013, people in the U.S. tornado corridor found that there were cases where people had underground shelters, but couldn't get to them in time. That led families to invest in attaching or installing safe rooms in their homes, where they'd be most accessible.
Download the NOAA App
The easiest (and least-costly) way to prepare for natural disasters is to download an NOAA app. There are a number of official and unofficial ones out there, most of which are highly-rated. One of the best features of "NOAA Weather Radar" is an overlay of disastrous weather patterns that goes over a map of your neighborhood, allowing you to see where bad weather is going to arrive to within a few blocks. You can even save locations (like your kids' schools) and immediately see where the weather is going. Want to know if your child will need an umbrella? The app will tell you. The app is available for iOS and Android devices.
Be on the Lookout for Scams
After a disaster, billions in damages means a high demand for professional contractors. With so many jobs and so few handymen, it becomes a seller's market...and that leads to fly-by-night, unlicensed companies popping up within 24 hours. Poor families or families with significant damage often need someone quick and can't afford reputable contractors.
Many of these families, unfortunately, get what they pay for: a rushed, shoddy job that leaves them thousands in the hole and with a home that's even less safe than it was before. Not only that, but because these companies barely existed to begin with, there's no way for homeowners to hold these fake contractors accountable. Before you can even say "lawsuit," the company's gone.
Here are some signs that you're dealing with a scam artist:
- They're not licensed
- They're not bonded
- They have no insurance
- They're not local
- They can't put you in touch with their past customers
- Low ball offers
- No physical office
- Demands payment in cash
Protect Your Rights
Finally, make sure you know how to deal with your insurance company. Because you and all your neighbors are likely dealing with the same 3 insurers, insurance companies will be trying even harder to low-ball you into an unfair settlement.
Don't let them.
The American Association for Justice put together a useful guide for protecting yourself when dealing with an insurance adjuster after a natural disaster. This document was written shortly after Hurricane Sandy, but it applies just as easily to hurricanes, tornadoes, or fires.
Just remember to:
- Get everything in writing
- Take photos of everything
- Double-check every form you fill out
- Obtain your own estimate
- Challenge their estimate in writing
In conclusion, remember that while a natural disaster is overwhelming, and it's easy to feel hopeless, you're not alone in this. We urge you to call us when you feel like you need help. Arnold & Itkin has won billions of dollars for people to get them back to normal. We can help.