The Ultimate Home Emergency Preparedness Guide
It’s not something any of us want to think about, but all it takes is one storm, one wildfire, one extended power outage to toss our lives into a tailspin.
That’s why, as you move into your new home, or start spring cleaning around your current place, it’s a perfect time to do a bit of home emergency preparation.
If a raging hurricane roars into your town, chances are your local stores will be boarded up and closed. If the river rises and streets are flooded, you aren’t driving anywhere. If you are outrunning a wildfire, you need to make sure you have everything with you.
Having a case of water and some flashlights won’t cut it in most emergencies. In fact, a government emergency prep survey discovered that only 48% of respondents had made an emergency plan for a disaster.
This guide will help you be better prepared for many types of home emergency issues.
Key natural disaster facts
- In 2021, the U.S. experienced 20 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters, the second-highest number on record after 2020. (NOAA)
- Natural disasters are responsible for around 45,000 deaths each year globally. (Our World in Data)
- Hurricanes were responsible for $38 billion in insured losses in 2021, followed by $27 billion from thunderstorms, and $16 billion from winter storms. (Insurance Information Institute)
- Hurricane Katrina was the costliest natural catastrophe in U.S. history at over $89 billion in 2021 dollars. (Insurance Information Institute)
- Texas experiences more natural disasters on average than any other state. (U.S. News & World Report)
Four steps to preparing for an emergency
There are plenty of resources to use as you prep for emergencies. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers a free “Preparing for Disaster” publication.
The emergency experts at FEMA suggest starting with these four points:
- Get informed
- Make a plan
- Assemble a kit
- Maintain your plan and kit
Step 1. Get informed
Each part of the United States has its own hazards: flooding in the South, tornadoes in the Midwest and wildfires in the West are just a few. It’s important that you learn what type of weather your area is prone to so you know what to prepare for.
For insurance purposes, for example, you’ll need to know if your home is on a flood plain or if there’s been a wildfire in recent years.
Community disaster plans
Most communities that have existing issues like extreme weather events or drought-driven problems will have community response plans, evacuation plans, and designated emergency shelters already in place.
Call your city or town hall or visit their website to learn about them. Call the non-emergency line for your police or fire department to ask where you can find these resources. Your public library and your child’s school should also have this information available.
If you find your community does not have such plans, make your own with your neighbors. Ready.gov provides a community preparedness toolkit to help you create a team and make evacuation and survival plans.
Community warning systems
As you investigate your area’s disaster plans, find out how local authorities will warn you of an impending disaster and how they will provide information to you during and after the emergency.
Some counties and states have alert programs you can sign up for online. Texts go out to your cellphone in an event of an emergency.
There are also Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) that are utilized by governments and the National Weather Service. Messages are directly broadcast from cell towers to any WEA‐enabled mobile device in a locally targeted area. Here are some guidelines to make sure your cellphone can receive those messages.
Step 2: Make a plan
Preparation is key in anything we do, from cooking dinner to fixing our car. Preparing for a disaster is necessary for the safety of your family and your home, so take the time to make a plan.
- Hold a family meeting: Get everyone in your household together to discuss plans. Gently explain disasters to children and decide what responsibilities each family member will have. Don’t forget to include caregivers in planning.
- Designate escape routes and safe places: In a fire or other emergency, you may need to evacuate on a moment’s notice. Be ready to get out fast. Be sure everyone in your family knows the best escape routes out of your home, as well as where the safe places are in your home for each type of disaster. For example, pick a tree or structure as a meeting place after you escape from a house fire — just make sure it’s a safe distance from the fire.
- Plan for those with disabilities and special needs: Keep support items like wheelchairs, canes, and emergency medicine in designated places.
- Plan for your pets: When possible, plan to take your pets if you evacuate. Prepare a list of family, friends, boarding, vets, and hotels that would be able to shelter your pets in emergency situations. Most communities have evacuation shelters for livestock and larger pets.
- Prepare for different hazards: Your actions will differ depending on what type of emergency it is, so go over each scenario at your meeting, or hold separate meetings so you won’t overwhelm everyone.
Once you have a plan in place, review it every six months, restock supplies and check for expiration dates. This is a great time to test fire extinguishers and alarms, too. Ready.gov also offers a Family Communications Plan, downloadable here.
Step 3: Create an emergency preparedness kit
You’ve probably heard the term “emergency kit” tossed around, but do you have one of your own? A kit contains all the items needed for a disaster in one place or general area. Having a designated box or closet — that you don’t routinely borrow from — is best to prevent you from scurrying around looking for items during urgent times of need. What should a kit include?
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, recommends the following supplies for your kit:
- First aid kit
- Non-perishable food (at least a 3-day supply)
- Water for drinking and sanitation (1 gallon per person per day for at least 3 days)
- Extra batteries
- Local maps
- Can opener
- Wrench or plier to turn off utilities
- Whistle to call for help
- Mask to filter contaminated air
- Cellphone with chargers and backup battery
- Battery-powered or hand-crank radio
- NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert
- Moist towelettes and garbage bags for personal sanitation
- Depending on your family’s needs, there are many other items to consider. Examples include:
- Prescription and non-prescription medications
- Extra glasses and contact lens solution
- Pet food and extra water
- Feminine hygiene products
- Infant supplies such as bottles and diapers
- Sleeping bags and blankets
- Most home improvement stores carry inexpensive emergency water filtration kits, it’s a good idea to keep one in your emergency supplies.
Step 4: Maintain your plan and kit
The hard part of disaster preparation is putting together your plan and kit, but that doesn’t mean you can completely forget about it once it’s done. FEMA recommends reviewing your plan and kit every six months, along with these other maintenance tasks:
- Review your plan and quiz family members on steps.
- Conduct fire and emergency evacuation drills.
- Check food supplies for expiration dates and discard or replace stored water and food as needed.
- Test your smoke alarms monthly and change the batteries at least once a year.
- Read the indicator on your fire extinguisher(s) and follow the manufacturer’s instructions to recharge.
Preparing your home for a natural disaster
As the cost of natural disasters is often in the billions, it’s smart to plan ahead to minimize the damage to your property as much as possible, even if you have insurance.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a report noting, “In 2021, there were 20 weather/climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion each to affect the United States. These events included 1 drought event, 2 flooding events, 11 severe storm events, 4 tropical cyclone events, 1 wildfire event, and 1 winter storm event.”
Whether you live in an area prone to wildfires or hurricanes, each scenario should have you creating the kits and the plans discussed above. Plus, there are additional steps according to the type of issue you are dealing with to ensure that your family remains safe and hopefully limit property damage:
If you live on the East Coast or along the Gulf Coast, you are most likely very familiar with hurricane season, running from June through November. However, seasons vary across the globe:
- Eastern Pacific Hurricane Season: May 15 to Nov. 30.
- Atlantic Hurricane Season: June 1 to Nov. 30.
- Central Pacific Hurricane Season: June 1 to Nov. 30.
High winds and floodwaters are the biggest dangers of hurricanes. Basic pre-storm preparation applies here:
- Remove debris: bring in loose objects like patio furniture, bikes, trash cans.
- Prepare an evacuation kit: See the list above.
- Learn your evacuation routes.
- Board windows: Hurricane-force winds can easily break the windows in your home.
- Fill your car’s gas tank: You may need to evacuate quickly, so have your car’s gas tank full and your evacuation kit loaded.
- The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers a downloadable guide to “How to Prepare or a Hurricane.”
If you were evacuated, returning home can be difficult if power is not restored or if your community is flooded:
- Heed official instructions in case they suggest to delay returning home.
- Do not wade into floodwaters that could contain debris, chemicals, waste, or even be electrically charged from a downed power line.
- Document property damage with photos.
- Wear protective clothing during cleanup. Masks are recommended as some conditions can be worsened by exposure to water leaks and mold.
High winds, little rain and dry air is often a recipe for a wildfire disaster to strike. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, in 2021, about 90% of land in the Western states was experiencing moderate to severe drought.
“From January 1 to November 26, 2021 there were 52,729 wildfires, compared with 52,113 in the same period in 2020,” according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
According to the Insurance Information Institute, the Top 10 states at extreme wildfire risk are:
You can help to mitigate the risk of a wildland fire destroying your home. Look around your home’s property … is it clogged with brush and trees in need of trimming? Create a fire-resistant zone that is free of leaves, debris, or flammable materials for at least 30 feet from your home.
Making defensible space can mean the difference between returning to your house from an evacuation to returning to an empty, burned-out lot. Clearing land can be expensive, but some wildfire-prone areas offer grants to homeowners for creating defensible space.
Ready.gov’s manual How to Prepare for a Wildfire can give you an in-depth plan of attack to protect your family and your home.
- Practice safety (know how to use fire extinguishers)
- Connect your garden hose
- If you live in a high-risk area, consider hiring a professional to re-roof with metal, tile, or composition
- Consider installing tempered glass panes in windows near trees or shrubs.
Although an earthquake can hit anywhere at anytime, according to a United States Geological Survey (USGS) study, the areas most likely to be hit with one in the U.S. “are found on the West Coast, the western mountain range, the Midwest south of the Great Lakes, the southern coast of Alaska, and the big island of Hawaii.”
If you live in an area prone to earthquakes, these tips can help you plan for the next one:
- Secure large furniture
- Locate your gas connection
- Check your building’s foundation
About 1,200 tornadoes hit the U.S. yearly, mainly located in the area called “Tornado Alley” that includes Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Indiana, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, and Ohio. However, all 50 states have recorded a tornado at one time or another.
According to NOAA, “The peak tornado season for the southern Plains (e.g., Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas) is from May into early June. On the Gulf coast, it is earlier in the spring. In the northern Plains and upper Midwest (North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota), tornado season is in June or July. But, remember, tornadoes can happen at any time of year. Tornadoes can also happen at any time of day or night, but most tornadoes occur between 4–9 p.m.”
If you live in an area that has a history of tornado activity, these tips can help you:
- Create or identify a safe room. A lower-level basement or cellar is best.
- If you can’t get to your safe room, shelter in the bathtub.
- Prepare your home for high winds, bring in loose yard furniture, decorations
- Monitor the weather forecast
- Know your area’s tornado signal, it may be the only warning you get
Flooding is tricky. It can happen slowly, due to days of consistent rain, or suddenly, with a torrential downpour from a hurricane or violent storm.
Identify if your home is in a flood plain or has flooded in the past. Prepare your home for a possible flood by:
- Looking into extra flood insurance
- Keep your home’s gutters clear
- Raise your electrical system from ground level
- Protect HVAC systems if they are on the ground
If you are caught in floodwaters, some tips from ready.gov include:
- Do not walk, swim or drive through any floodwaters. Turn around.
- Just six inches of moving water can knock you down and one foot of moving water can sweep away your vehicle.
- Stay off bridges over fast-moving water.
- Depending on the type of flooding:
- Evacuate if told to do so.
- Move to higher ground or a higher floor in your building
- Stay where you are
Types of home insurance to protect your home and what they cover
Home insurance is essential to protecting your assets in the event of a natural disaster. There are several types of homeowners insurance available, and no policy covers every type of natural disaster. In addition, each type can have exclusions for certain events, so you’ll want to discuss your policy directly with your provider to make sure you’re covered for the disasters that could affect your area.
- H-01: The most limited home insurance coverage. Only covers your home and belongings at their actual cash value for specific “named perils.” These policies are very rare nowadays.
- H-02: Sometimes called “broad form,” these policies cover everything an H-01 does, but adds six more named perils to the list, including some types of flooding, volcanic eruption, and the weight of ice, snow, or sleet.
- H-03: An H-03 is the most standard type of homeowners insurance policy, and it covers everything in an H-02, plus some liability, additional living expenses and medical payments. It provides all-risks, or open-perils coverage, meaning you’re covered for everything except causes of loss specifically listed in your policy.
- H-04: A policy for renters (usually called renter’s insurance) that covers your personal property at replacement cost both inside your home and anywhere in the world.
- H-05: The most comprehensive form of homeowners insurance, H-05 policies cover everything in an H-03, but with higher coverage limits. These policies are typically for high-value homes in high-risk areas.
- H-06: These policies are also referred to as “condo owners’ insurance.” They covered named perils that damage the home “from the walls in.” How much coverage you’ll need will depend on your condo association’s HOA insurance.
- H-07: H-07 policies cover mobile and manufactured homes, with coverage similar to an H-03. This includes trailers, sectional homes, and RVs.
- H-08: Tailored for older homes at a high risk of loss that don’t qualify for an H-03. These are named peril policies that cover 10 perils, with reimbursement determined by the home’s actual cash value instead of replacement cost.
Which natural disasters are covered by home insurance?
Whether you’re covered for a natural disaster will depend on the exclusions in your specific policy, so you’ll want to talk with your home insurance agent to be certain.
In most homeowners insurance policies, damage from tornadoes is covered and it doesn’t require special add-on coverage. Tornadoes might not be listed specifically in your policy, but most policies cover damage from things like wind, hail, flying debris, and fallen trees. That said, some areas that experience a lot of tornadoes may require separate deductibles for wind or hail.
Like tornadoes, hurricane damage from things like wind and hail is covered in most home insurance policies, but there may be limited coverage or higher deductibles for homes in coastal regions. Additionally, flood damage is usually not covered unless it’s added under a separate flood insurance policy.
With most home insurance policies, fire damage to your home and personal belongings is covered. There may be some restrictions for homes in areas that are prone to wildfires. In most policies, the teardown and removal of items damaged in a fire are also covered.
Lightning damage is covered in most standard homeowners insurance policies, including if lightning strikes a tree that damages your house. Your electronics are also covered if lightning causes an electrical surge.
Most policies also cover damage to the dwelling or personal belongings from extreme cold. Damage caused by burst pipes are usually covered, as well as damage caused by the weight of ice or snow. However, flooding from melted snow or ice is covered under a separate flood insurance policy.
Which natural disasters are not covered by home insurance?
While the most common weather events are covered under standard home insurance policies, there are several that are not.
Flooding is the most common and costly natural disaster that is not covered by home insurance. You’ll have to purchase a separate flood insurance policy from your provider, or directly from the federal government’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).
According to the NFIP, over 90% of all natural disasters involve flooding. Flood insurance costs around $700 per year on average, depending on your home’s flood zone, your coverage, and your home’s vulnerability to flooding.
While earthquakes aren’t covered in most standard home insurance policies, you can typically add it to for an additional cost. According to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC), Americans in 42 states are at risk of an earthquake, with the most active seismic areas along the West Coast. Earthquake insurance adds on between $100 and $300 per year on average.
Damage from tsunamis is not covered directly by home insurance, but you can purchase a separate flood insurance policy to protect your assets.
Does car insurance cover natural disasters?
Comprehensive coverage in car insurance policies covers anything that’s not a collision — including damage from natural disasters like floods, wildfires, hail, and earthquakes. Comprehensive coverage is typically optional, so you’ll want to check the details of your policy to see if you have it.
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