Commentary: Prepare now for coastal storms and natural hazards

Hurricane season started June 1, and while the statistical peak of hurricane season is Sept. 10, now is the time to prepare.

Many homeowners in Delaware become complacent about natural hazards because we are fortunate to experience them infrequently or we believe in one or more common myths. The risk is that we fall into a false sense of security and may not be prepared when the inevitable happens.

Myth 1: “Delaware is not at significant risk of hurricanes or other natural hazards.”

Over the past 30 years, Delaware has experienced more than 85 meteorologically significant coastal storm events, including the nor’easter in January 2016 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Just this past April, an EF2 tornado struck Laurel and an EF1 tornado touched down in Harbeson. While Delaware has been fortunate to avoid many direct hits during the last few decades, there is a very good chance our state will experience impacts from a major natural hazard in your lifetime.

Myth 2: “I survived a hurricane before, so I am sufficiently prepared.”

Danielle Swallow

Previous storms’ impacts to Delaware could have been much more severe had those storms tracked slightly differently. With changing climate conditions like sea level rise and more intense rainfall projected, impacts from extreme weather events are more likely in Delaware in the future. Current land use patterns and population growth mean our exposure and vulnerability to storms are increasing. Yesterday’s storms are no indicator of tomorrow’s hazard.

Myth 3: “I don’t live near the coast, so I am safe.”

Powerful thunderstorms, tornadoes and wind can cause widespread damage in all parts of Delaware. In addition, flooding can occur almost anywhere. About 20 percent of flood claim payments in the United States go to people who live outside of federally mapped high-risk zones, such as low-lying coastal areas.

Myth 4: “My homeowner’s insurance plan covers flood damage.”

Most homeowners insurance policies do NOT cover flood damage. Flood insurance is sold as a separate policy and is available to homeowners within — and outside of — the high-risk zones of the FEMA-mapped flood plain. Flood insurance policies typically take 30 days to go into effect, so avoid waiting until severe weather is forecast. Further details at www.floodsmart.gov

Myth 5: “If my home or property is damaged by a natural hazard event, FEMA or other disaster programs will provide assistance.”

After major disasters, many homeowners expect government assistance, only to find that government funds are often unavailable or take the form of small grants or loans that are insufficient. Following Hurricane Harvey in 2017 in Harris County, Texas, the average individual grant to property owners was only $4,200. Those who had flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program received an average claim payment of $113,000.

Myth 6: “Mother Nature is in charge. Even if I try to prepare, my home could be damaged.”

While it is not possible to eliminate all risks, taking steps to plan and improve your resilience to major weather events can be the difference to whether your house escapes major damage and family members are able to bounce back from the disruption. Building and retrofitting a home to higher standards can avoid damage and losses that are difficult to recover from.

Myth 7: “Strengthening my house is too expensive and not worth the effort.”

Strengthening your house protects your neighbors as well as yourself. A house that falls apart during a hurricane will create debris that can damage adjacent properties. It spares emergency responders from rescuing you instead of helping others. Strengthening your house can add value to your house and help you avoid future losses. Even if you strengthen your home, you should still evacuate if your neighborhood is at risk of becoming inaccessible due to floodwaters.

THINGS YOU CAN DO TO PREPARE

There are some things you can do to prepare that will provide greater protection to your family and your property. Know your house and property and take appropriate action to protect them. Seek help from a qualified, licensed architect, structural engineer, or contractor to strengthen your home. Obtain appropriate insurance.

Develop a family communications plan to stay in touch if separated during an emergency. Prepare an emergency supply kit for sheltering in place and a waterproof go-bag with essential documents, flashlights, cash, batteries, first aid and medications. Know your evacuation routes and plan for those with mobility or health needs. Make a plan for the safety of household pets.

These tips are just an overview. For in-depth information, download the Homeowners Handbook to Prepare for Natural Hazards at www.deseagrant.org/coastal-hazards or request a hard copy from Delaware Sea Grant by calling 302-831-8083.

Danielle Swallow is the coastal hazards specialist of the Delaware Sea Grant Marine Advisory Service, which is housed within the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment. Delaware Sea Grant serves its stakeholders using applied science to address environmental issues.

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