How Can Your Home Inspector Help You Prepare For Emergencies?
Many homeowners will be faced with seasonal threats to their safety, such as a wildfire that is too close in proximity or rising floodwaters thatcompel them, at least temporarily, to abandon their properties. In only the last three years, damage caused by natural disasters and severe weather conditions in the U.S. has amounted to a cost of tens of billions of dollars and has resulted in hundreds of deaths.
In October of 2012, the state of New Jersey experienced the horrific, devastating wrath of Hurricane Sandy. Over two million homes in New Jersey lost power, thousands of individuals found themselves forced to evacuate, 346,000 homes were destroyed or damaged, and 37 people were killed. Damages were assessed to have been an excess of 68 billion dollars.
In such nightmarish situations, preparedness is key. Here are some suggestions that can help you to make a well-planned retreat, as well as some ways that your home inspector can help you to ready yourself for an emergency and assess any damage to the property upon your return home.
Emergency evacuation can be problematic even under the best of circumstances and with ample warning. Emotions rise, panic sets in, and decision-making can be affected. It is important to consider whether the situation is widespread or localized. In an occurrence such as a nearby chemical spill, a gas pipe that has been ruptured, or a home fire, you can reasonably conclude that assistance is just beyond the immediate danger zone and the evacuation will likely only be temporary (several hours to a night or two). Your family should devise a plan for evacuation that determines a family point of meeting outside of the home. A larger disaster, however, such as a flood, wildfire, earthquake, tornado or hurricane, may affect a wider area, thereby compromising or completely disabling public utilities (electricity, communications, water and sewer). The roads within this area may be difficult to navigate, or blocked altogether, making it difficult or impossible for emergency personnel to reach those in need of assistance.
There are many steps you can take, regardless of the type of disaster, to lessen the potential for property damage and allow for a secure and safe evacuation should that become necessary. Such procedures can minimize the potential for unpleasant shock upon your return home.
For the sake of pre-emergency organization, I've broken down these evacuation tips into the following three categories:
- Personal health and safety
- Home security
PERSONAL HEALTH AND SAFETY
Certain measures should be taken by homeowners to ensure their personal health and safety when they are required to leave their homes during an emergency situation. It is important to tune in to local news and broadcasts on television or radio by the Emergency Alert System in order to stay aware of the latest weather or other conditions, as well as to find out the recommendations of local emergency management, such as the location of public shelters.
You can greatly minimize the last-minute panic of leaving home in a hurry through preparation. The following list of items to pack may vary from person to person, but they are based on these priorities:
- Short-term vs. Long-term evacuation
- What you'll need while you're away
- What you shouldn't leave behind while you're gone
- A waterproof, all-purpose first aid/emergency kit that includes a flashlight, a radio with batteries, hand sanitizer, and matches
- Any prescription medications for all family members, hearing aids, glasses
- Pet care supplies, including food and medication, leashes, carriers, water bowls
- A bag, backpack, or container of ready-to-go personal toiletries for each family member
- A change of clothing, including footwear,undergarments, and outerwear
- MylarTMcamping blankets and sleeping bags
- Important personal papers(secured in pouches made of waterproof material), including documents that are irreplaceable or hard-to-replace, such as:
- Birth certificates
- Drivers' licenses and other forms of ID
- Social Security cards
- Insurance policies and other banking, business and legal cards and documents
- Contact information for friends, neighbors, and relatives, as well as information regarding local shelters, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Red Cross, which may be overseeing disaster relief in your area
- Cash and credit cards
- Cell phones and other necessary personal electronic devices as well as their chargers
- Irreplaceable personal items, such as albums with photographs that have not been preserved digitally
- Suitable supply of snacks and non-perishable goods, including special items such baby formula, along with a can opener (if needed), that will last until you reach alternative housing and fresh supplies
- Water. FEMA recommends having a three-day supply of one gallon of water per-person, per day, to be used for both drinking and for sanitation purposes.
- Plastic bags, hand sanitizer, wet wipes, and other items for personal hygiene and sanitary purposes
- A basic toolkit that includes pliers, a wrench (adjustable), a hacksaw, work gloves, and any other tools necessary to operate utility shut-off valves, fix flat tires,cut through tree branches that may be blocking a road, or pry open a blocked or broken door
You can augment your emergency supply list with the following items:
- A gallon of bleach to be used for the purification of drinking water and as a disinfectant, if necessary. The addition of 16 drops of regular chlorine bleach to one gallon of water will make it potable.
- A portable generator (gasoline-powered), as well as a supply of extra gasoline
- A compact, transportable fire extinguisher
- Portable flashlights and lanterns
- A camping toilet
- A portable camping stove and a mess kit for each family member
- Face masks for each family member
- Plastic sheeting/tarps, scissors, and duct tape to create a makeshift shelter in the event a more suitable shelter cannot be reached in time. These materials can also be employed in the construction of a barrier from debris in the event it is unsafe to leave your home, and you must take refuge there.
- Any supplies that can be used in daily routines should temporary accommodations be too difficult to access or are overcrowded.
Possession of items such as these can enable a family is self-sufficient until they are able to return home. With the exception of electronics that are used on a daily basis or regularly taken medications, most of the items on these lists can be stored in a central location, such as a garage cupboard or a coat closet, or already stored in your vehicle.
For family members with special needs, such as infants and small children, the elderly, and individuals who have mobility issues, a plan for emergency evacuation is of great necessity because the time required for their departure is more substantial, and the list of their personal items is usually specialized. A lightweight, collapsible wheelchair, for example, may be a practical option for short-term, emergency use for a wheelchair-bound individual. Someone who is reliant on oxygen may do well to have a more readily portable supply on hand. Individuals who use hearing aids should make a practice of keeping a supply of extra batteries in their toiletries bag.
First responders and emergency personnel should be alerted as soon as is possible to the location of elderly and at-risk residents who may have compromised mobility so that they will be able to receive any additional assistance they may need to make a safe and timely departure.
If a mandatory evacuation is expected to be long-term and residents have extra time to pack more than just their basic essentials, some homeowners may desire to pack items of special sentimental or monetary value, such as family heirlooms, artwork, jewelry, and other prized possessions.
As with most lists, this "B-list" should be developed well in advance of an emergency. Take into consideration how these items can be stored in your vehicle while still leaving enough room for family members and emergency essentials. Also investigate the option of off-site storage at a secure location.
Here's a bit of good news for homeowners whose home inspections were performed by an InterNACHI inspector. You have likely already been given Now That you've had a Home Inspection. This free ultimate home maintenance manual is presently in its fourth edition and is now also available in Spanish as a PDF download. This essential guide spells out precisely the seasonal and annual issues of which homeowners should be aware in order to keep their homes in good condition. A good number of these tips can be applied in emergency situations.
Homeowners should confirm on a regular basis that the drainage systems on their property are unobstructed. This includes downspouts, gutters, and drain fields. Tree branches should be cut back to avoid breakage that could result in roof damage and to prevent entanglement with power lines during storms. Chimneys and shingles ought to be in good condition, having no unsecured pieces that can become hazardous projectiles in severe storms. Those living in homes in areas that are susceptible to wildfires should maintain a suitable protective area around their properties.
As well as understanding the basic maintenance of the exterior of their homes, it is also necessary for homeowners to be aware of the possible hazards that exist within their home that can jeopardize personal safety. This includes things such as shelf units, light fixtures, and windows, which, during a storm or other emergency, can become damaged or unsteady, resulting in serious injury to family members taking shelter indoors.
It is critical for you to know where all of all shut-off valves in your home are and to be knowledgeable about how to operate them. If you are not, do not delay in scheduling an appointment with your InterNACHI inspector. He or she can educate you in these essentials so that, when the time inevitably comes, you can move quickly and confidently.
Shutting Off Utilities
If time allows, before you shut off your home's utilities, power off all household appliances and then unplug them. If you fail to turn off the electricity at the panel, the appliances that are plugged in will continue to draw current, creating the possibility for disaster in a situation that is already unstable.
- Electricity: The process for disconnecting your electricity depends on your home's system type and your home's age. Most modern homes have circuit breakers; however some of the older homes still have fuses. After locating your main panel, open the door. This is called the dead front. On a fuse panel, you will see a knife-switch handle or a pullout fuse that is visibly marked "main". For homes with a circuit breaker panel, you should find one switch with the word "main", with the directions "off" and "on". In the event you have more than one electrical panel, it is advisable to turn the switches off or to remove the fuses located at the sub-panels since current can occasionally bypass the fuse or the main breaker.
- Gas: Each one of your gas-fueled appliances, like your stove and your water heater, should have its own, individual shut-off valve. The service for your property is found outside at your home's gas meter, and may be visibly exposed, in a box underground, or in a cabinet above ground. Make sure that it is easily accessible (particularly if it is a box that locks), and, if you live in multi-family housing, that you know which box services your home. The shut-off valve usually runs next to the pipe that runs to the meter from the ground. A 90-degree turn of this valve in either way, positioning it cross way to the pipe, will shut the gas off. Should you suspect there is a leak, absolutely do not ignite any source of fire (cigarette, candle, etc.) or operate any nearby electrical switches, including light switches, as even a small spark can result in an explosion. Ascertain that your gas is safe to turn on upon your return home.
- Water: Each commode, sink, and appliance that uses water has its own individual shut-off valve. If time allows (and depending on the nature of the emergency), shutting the water supply off for these appliances can prevent flooding in the home. Should you need to shut off your home's water supply, be sure you know where the shutoff valve is located. Usually, it is in an area of the home that is closest to the exterior valve at the meter. As with the gas service shut-off valve, those that have a blade-style valve are in alignment with the pipe when turned on. Giving it a quarter-turn can shut off the water.
Lock Your Windows and Doors
Securely lock all of your home's windows and doors to prevent undesired entry by trespassers during an emergency. This includes any and all exterior doors, as well as doors connecting an attached garage to the house, all outbuildings, and yard gates. During a tornado, however, some homes can become overly pressurized if some windows are not left open a bit. In regions that are prone to hurricanes, the windows of a home may need to be boarded up. Use your own best judgment, and also consider the type of emergency as well as the recommendations of local experts.
Other Security Issues
Farmers and ranchers have their own special concerns, such as the security of their livestock, additional equipment and buildings. Likewise, those who manage multi-housing units and commercial property owners have their own unique priorities that must be addressed with tenants and employees prior to any emergency evacuation. In general, fire marshals mandate that a sign of specified dimensions displaying the emergency escape route be posted in a location with easy visibility. Such signage is usually located near fire extinguishers and fire pull alarms. All employees and residents should focus on safe and timely evacuation and leave the security of the property to those in charge of such responsibilities.
Returning to one's home after an emergency or disaster can be an emotional event, so it's crucial to allow first responders and emergency personnel to do their jobs and to heed their instructions. In general, unless you are able to turn all of your utilities back on, your access to your home may be somewhat limited. This, however, depends on the municipality in which you reside as well as the extent of the damage. It may be necessary to boil your supply of water for a period of time until governmental agencies confirm that it's safe and potable without being treated.
Before re-entering your property:
Examine the exterior.
- Ensure that there are no fallen power lines on or near your property. If there are, under no circumstances should you try to move this yourself. Contact your utility company or law enforcement.
- Watch for broken tree limbs that may block access to your home, or which may be in contact with power lines. In such situations, seek assistance to avoid a potential fatality.
- Confirm that the outer edge of your property is secure and safe before allowing your pets to roam the property. Natural disasters can disorient animals, and they sometimes attempt to escape.
- Survey any damage to the roof, exterior doors and windows, the chimney, and other areas of access, but do so safely. You may choose to let your InterNACHI inspector do this.
- Check exterior drainage, downspouts, and gutters for blockages. Clear them out as soon as it is possible to safely do so.
- It is always advisable to document any damage from the ground and then allow your InterNACHI inspector to make a more detailed and in-depth inspection, which may give light to issues that are not obvious, like hail damage, which is difficult to identify properly. This is especially to your benefit after a widespread major catastrophe since your insurance investigator, burdened with numerous other clients in your area, could possibly miss some things.
Examine the interior.
- Before you turn on the water and gas services in your home, check all individual appliances to be sure that they have not been damaged. Make note of all damage, and contact your utility company if you do not feel safe turning the water or gas back on yourself. If no damage is apparent and there are no telltale sounds (such as hissing) or smells coming from any appliances, it is most likely safe to turn on the water and gas at their shut-off valves. Perform the same assessment before turning back on the electricity.
- Dispose of any perishable items left in a refrigerator during a power outage. Do so securely to ensure that stray animals that may be searching for food cannot access it. Sometimes, foods left in the freezer can be salvageable; however it is always best to use caution and avoids serious illnesses that are caused by bacteria.
- Survey your home for structural damage. This includes checking for broken glass.
- In the aftermath of a flood or storm, it is important to check the crawlspace, basement, attic areas, windowsills, and exterior doors for moisture. Moisture, left unchecked, can lead to serious health issues caused by mold problems as well as structural issues down the road. Your InterNACHI inspector will survey your home using an infrared camera designed to identify areas of energy loss and moisture intrusion that may be invisible to the naked eye.
Check in with your neighbors and others.
- Account for any elderly and at-risk neighbors.
- Notify Animal Control or any pet owners you know if you see disoriented pets in search of their homes or owners. Refrain from interacting with wildlife that may have had to flee their natural habitat. Contact Animal Control to report their location.
Those of us who have never experienced disaster sometimes ponder what we would take if we had only mere moments to spare. The truth of the matter is that there is no wrong time to make those plans and formulate that list. Have a family discussion about what they should do in the event of an emergency. By involving all family members in the making of sensible preparations, chances are good that when disaster strikes, rather than panicking, you'll be better able to guide your family in a safe and sensible manner during an evacuation. When all are aware of what to expect (as much as is possible), that will ease their tension, enabling them to remain calm and act quickly. Schedule an appointment with your InterNACHI inspector who can aid you in developing a checklist to secure your house in the case of an emergency, as well as determine its condition afterward to confirm that it is safe for your return. Your inspector can also help you in putting to gethera plan of action for repairs. And finally, remember to replenish your emergency supplies so that you will be prepared for the next time, should it ever be necessary.