- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 14, 2006

If you think a twister is something that happens only to someone named Dorothy in some far-off place called Kansas, think again. Tornados aren’t confined to the Sunflower State. In fact, one may be just around the corner.

Since the 1990s, an increasing number of tornadoes have touched down in the Washington area, with an even higher incidence in mini tornado alleys running east of the Blue Ridge through Loudoun and Frederick counties and from St. Mary’s County northward into Anne Arundel along the western side of the Chesapeake Bay.

District residents have had to contend with unanticipated floods and unexpected power failures from severe storms. Hurricane watches and warnings are no longer just associated with the South. In these days of increased anxiety and changing weather patterns, it’s important for homeowners to be prepared in the event of an emergency and to know what to do if disaster strikes.

“There is probably no place anymore that’s not at risk for something,” says Jeanne Salvatore, senior vice president and spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute (III), an information source of the insurance industry.

Interest in preparedness has increased phenomenally since the September 11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina, says Juan Aranda, branch manager for Century 21 New Millennium in Dunkirk, Md.

“Everyone has a different attitude,” he says. “People are much more aware.”

Yet according to the Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS), an insurance industry initiative, homes typically are constructed to withstand wind speeds of just up to about 70 mph, with weaker parts prone to damage well before the winds reach that level.

Tornado winds generally range from 40 mph to more than 300 mph.

The building and insurance industries are ready to help with pamphlets, books and interactive software that can provide valuable information about home safety.

The National Association of Realtors, for example, has “The Pocket Disaster Survival Guide,” available for purchase from its Web site or on sites such as Amazon.com. It provides information about emergency lighting and power sources, food and sanitation, and communications.

IBHS offers its own program, Fortified for Safer Living, which enables homeowners to plug in their ZIP codes to get a list of hazards based on their region. It also will generate a list of recommended upgrades and provide specific action plans for how to strengthen your home.

Using impact-resistant windows and sliding glass doors, for instance, will minimize the chance those winds get into your home. Reinforced and dead-bolted entry doors also will help your house withstand winds as long as door frames are properly strengthened.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommends that garage doors be inspected to ensure that they meet or exceed local codes. Weaker doors can buckle during storms and impact the stability of the roof.

Modernizing heating, plumbing and electrical systems may help reduce the risk of fire and water damage. Keeping basic maintenance current also can pay off in the event of an emergency.

Probably the most important repair, says Wendy Rose, spokeswoman for IBHS, is the one you make up top.

“You should upgrade your roof whenever possible,” she says. “A few more nails in the right places can make all the difference.”

About $1,000 for a 2,000-square-foot home will buy a special “hurricane strap,” a steel-reinforced strap that will hold the rafters to the walls. Special “ring shank” nails, chased like screws, won’t pull out easily and will help protect the roof from being taken off by high winds.

Additional sheathing to withstand moisture (and wind) also can mean the difference between a virtually intact home and a scene of utter devastation.

Even moisture-resistant tape over seams can make an important difference.

“Using the right materials will make your home safer without a significant extra cost,” Ms. Rose says. “If you are replacing your roof, you should encourage your contractor to do these kinds of things.”

You also can create a special “safe room” in your home that can provide protection from high winds and flying debris.

Safe rooms typically are located in the interior of a home in a space without windows, so you may want to think of refitting an existing closet, bathroom or storage room.

A safe room is more expensive if you are retrofitting an existing space than if you are incorporating its construction into a new home. But the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s FHA-insured loans can lend you up to $5,000 in added-on financing.

Building your home from the ground up? If so, you’ll have a chance to implement some state-of-the-art improvements that not only will help protect you and your loved ones in the event of a calamity, but will lower long-term costs and easily may improve the salability of your home.

“There are a number of realities that argue for reconsidering design,” says Alex Wilson, president of Building Green Inc., a clearinghouse for information and products relating to “common sense” building, and publisher of Building Green’s monthly newsletter, Environmental Building News.

“These include the growing risks of storms and flooding that were brought into focus by Hurricane Katrina, the risk of terrorism and the likelihood that the next 10 or 20 years will find us with fuel and water shortages.”

In other words, home buyers and builders should be thinking in terms of “passive sustainability.” Passive sustainability means wrapping your home in an energy-efficient envelope that won’t make it too difficult to cool if the power shuts down. You might want to consider a light-colored roof rather than a dark one and cut down on the windows on the east and west. Trees also can provide a cooling effect.

Providing for natural ventilation and window design that will enable airflow and allow warm air to exit at the top of the house also can make for a more livable environment. The availability of natural lighting also will allow space to be occupied and used during the day in the event of an extended power outage.

Cisterns can be set up to store rainwater. Composting toilets can function with virtually no water.

“Many strategies are common-sense strategies,” Mr. Wilson says. “They are closer to the ways that buildings were being built one hundred years ago.”

Yet even the best-prepared still may have to confront the unexpected. It’s important to make sure you have the wherewithal to cope with the effects of a tornado or other natural disaster if you experience one.

Homeowner’s insurance policies typically cover the cost of the home, personal property and expenses related to the loss. Still, most homes are underinsured, so you may want to be sure your coverage is adequate in the face of changed market value and your own home improvements over the years.

Remember to shop for replacement cost coverage, not just home-value-based coverage, which may not cover what it will cost for you to rebuild your home and replace its contents.

The III’s Ms. Salvatore notes that flood insurance is also an important consideration, even in areas that are not prone to flooding.

“Ninety percent of all natural disasters involve some flooding,” she says.

III’s Web site includes free online software that will enable you to inventory your home and have a “much more productive” talk with your insurance agent. You’ll be able to list everything, from expensive items for which you may need additional riders to the improvements that have made your home safer. With improvements come discounts.

“Things that you do to a house to make it more disaster-resistant will be reflected in a positive way and affect your rates,” Ms. Salvatore says. “Even a fire extinguisher can earn a discount. There’s a lot you can do to make your house safer and save you money.”

If you have an older property, make sure you keep up with changes in local building codes so if you have to rebuild, you’ll have enough insurance to cover the cost of rebuilding to a more stringent code. In insurance terms, this is called law and ordinance coverage. An inflation guard will automatically adjust the amount of rebuilding your home from year to year to allow for additional labor and building costs.

Unfortunately, insurers themselves are as reluctant to insure properties that have experienced frequent claims as they are the individuals who make them. Certain areas have moratoriums on new insurance.

The Claims Loss Underwriting Exchange, or CLUE, is a database for insurance claims that easily can result in your being denied insurance for a particular property. Insurers also can use CLUE to decide whether to raise rates or issue a new policy.

As you might expect, too many claims on a particular property could affect its ability to be sold. Potential buyers should ask sellers directly about insurance conditions and consider property inspections to uncover potential problems.

“Some houses in places like St. Mary’s County could potentially be denied insurance based on the CLUE report,” Mr. Aranda says. “We’ve had to train our agents in how to deal with CLUE reports. It’s an extra responsibility for us to ensure that people get the information they need.”

Though only the homeowner can request the CLUE report, a potential buyer could make the home sale contingent upon receiving a copy of the CLUE report and accepting its results.

You also may be able to obtain federal tax relief in the event of a natural disaster. Just don’t expect to be able to write off all your uninsured damage. In order to get the best remuneration possible, you should plan on getting a professional estimate of the market-value decrease of your property.

The cost of unreimbursed damage must be more than 10 percent of your adjusted gross income, and you’ll need to adjust that amount before you make your final calculations.

To learn more about IRS rules on disaster losses, you can download Publication 547 from the IRS Web site (www.irs.gov). If you live within a federally declared disaster area, you are eligible to apply for your deduction as an amendment to the previous year’s federal tax return rather than waiting for next April.

Bottom line: Be proactive. Plan for both what happens before and what happens after disaster strikes.

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