Home Investments to Make to Prepare for Extreme Weather

Take these steps to stay safe when extreme weather hits—whether you're trying to live greener or just prep for the next big storm.

Over the past few decades, there's been a perceptible shift in the weather. What used to be considered hot now feels balmy, and the expected number and severity of winter storms have risen. For people who aren't members of the scientific community, it might not have been noticeable at first—a sweltering day here, an extra foot of snow there—until, all at once, we can't ignore it anymore.

Take hurricanes, for example. Tropical storms, cyclones, hurricanes—none of these are new phenomena for anyone living in or around Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and other coastal areas. Still, many people have observed that these major storms seem to be both more frequent and more intense than they have in the past. If you've also noticed this, it's not just a trick of the light—extreme weather feels more common because it is.

overhead view of flooded homes from extreme weather
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According to a recent study led by Dr. Phillip Klotzbach, after a whopper of a hurricane season in 2020 that had 30 named storms, this year will likely have at least 18 such storms. The average number of named storms between 1981-2010 was 12, and the average between 1991-2020 was 14.

This pattern can be seen in all forms of extreme weather. According to the EPA, "the extent of area [in the United States] burned by wildfires each year appears to have increased since the 1980s." Fire season is also peaking earlier (in July instead of August). "An average of 1.6 million acres burned in July of each year from 2001 to 2017," says the agency's recent report.

The same is true with extreme frost and winter storms. Who can forget the widespread power outages suffered by Texans this past winter? The National Weather Service called it a "historic winter outbreak," and rightfully so. The freezing weather lasted eight days, caused untold suffering, and resulted in 210 deaths, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Overwhelmingly, the scientific community attributes these weather events to the climate crisis—and there's no denying that the frequency of extreme weather events is rising. Ready or not, extreme storms and temperatures are coming. Fortunately, there's plenty that homeowners can do to be prepared and stay safe.

How to Prepare for Wildfires

Wildfires in 2021 were some of the most severe in living memory. It was particularly shocking to hear East Coasters reporting that they could see or smell the smoke from West Coast fires in real-time. The National Interagency Fire Center has reported 47,201 fires thus far in 2021, and it's only October. Plus, on an individual level, these fires are bigger than in the past. The 2021 Dixie Fire has burned a record 963,309 acres (taking second place amongst California wildfires) and incinerated 1,329 structures. It continues to burn.

To protect your home, there are a few steps to take, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and plenty of them cost little to no money. First and foremost, it's crucial to assess your property and rid it of any combustible materials on a regular basis.

This means cleaning out your gutters, keeping any areas with shrubbery or trees clear of dry leaves, pine needles, and grasses, and cleaning out your HVAC vents. Any debris has the potential to become kindling, so removing it is the first step towards a fire-safe home. All of these can be DIY projects (which means free), though you can also hire a professional to take care of them for you. They are also projects that should be carried out on a regular basis, just as you would other regular house maintenance.

The focus of structural fire-proofing projects should be on keeping dangerous embers from entering the house. This can be done by securing any entry points (the attic, roof, windows, and even a chimney). Fixing broken shingles might not seem crucial until you realize that a missing shingle is an opportunity for embers to enter your property and catch fire. Chimneys should be fitted with wire mesh, and windows should be replaced with double-pane glass.

These home improvement projects, unlike simple brush and gutter clearings, should be carried out by professionals. But they might not cost as much as you think. A report by Cal Matters showed that fireproof air vents run about $50 per vent, and weatherstripping to keep embers from sneaking around or under doors is only about $10 per package. Wire mesh is similarly inexpensive (starting at about $40) and can be installed without the help of a professional.

Building a new structure or making major changes to the exterior of your property, such as installing a deck that's not built of wood, is the most expensive option for prepping your home. That being said, a report from Headwaters Economics shows that the cost of building a fireproof structure from the ground up doesn't differ significantly from the cost of building any other home from scratch.

How to Prepare for Hurricanes, Tropical Storms, and Flooding

The devastation caused by hurricanes and tropical storms each year is costly. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that fixing damages caused by tropical storms, hurricanes, and floods has cost approximately $1,875 trillion.

"[The year] 2020 set a new record for events, with 22 billion-dollar weather and climate disasters—shattering the previous annual record of 16 events in 2011 and 2017," says the NOAA's most recent report.

There are a few key things that homeowners in affected regions need to know in order to be ready for hurricane season, which lasts roughly from May to November (depending on your locale). Just like wildfire prep, there are different actions to take, each with a different level of complexity and, therefore, a different price tag.

No-cost projects include clearing your yard from any debris or items that could become airborne in high winds. It's not enough to chain down your patio furniture or grill. If the authorities issue a hurricane warning, anything that's not literally nailed down should be moved indoors. Plan suitable (waterproof and spacious) storage so that when the time comes it's a simple matter of getting things inside according to plan.

The CDC also recommends securing windows and doors with plywood or storm shutters, as does FEMA. Plywood is quite inexpensive but isn't as effective as aluminum or steel storm shutters, which can stand up to objects being hurled at them at 110 mph. Storm shutters, though, can run anywhere from $60 to $500 apiece, not including installation.

It's also key to maintain electrical safety during a major storm, which could cut off the power to your home. Consider purchasing a small generator. These vary wildly in price, from $400 to $10,000, so take your time deciding which one best fits your home's needs. Bear in mind that generators themselves pose a danger when used incorrectly.

"While portable generators can provide some power backup during an outage, they must be used with extreme care," says Erin Hollinshead, executive director of Safe Electricity, "A person must take several precautions, including never using them indoors, in a garage, or near windows or doors. People should also never plug one into a wall outlet. Doing so can create deadly backfeed, which occurs when electricity travels from the generator back through the power lines."

FEMA also recommends waterproofing your basement and installing a water alarm along with a sump pump. These steps are also more expensive (a sump pump alone will run you an average of $1,257), but might be worthwhile when you consider the potential costs of flood damage. Many homeowners opt for building a whole safe room, which is by far the most expensive option.

A small, 10-square-foot, residential, prefabricated safe room may cost as little as $3,000, according to FEMA. Note that you can apply for funding from FEMA to cover these costs.

How to Stay Safe During Extreme Weather

It's all well and good to have a generator and a sump pump on hand or double-paned windows to keep out the intense heat, fire, or ice. It's equally important, though, to stay safe from situations that arise as a result of harsh weather. Preparing for power outages means making sure you have the supplies to stay warm, fed, and watered while the grid gets back up and running.

"While the cause of an outage is obvious during some events, such as hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires, ice on power lines can also cause serious issues with power delivery," says Hollinshead. "Even melting ice can be a problem because it can cause power lines to sag from the added weight."

Hollinshead recommends preparing an emergency kit ahead of time, including one gallon of water per person per day, as well as non-perishable packaged or canned foods, a manual can opener, paper plates, and plastic utensils. "Gather blankets, pillows, and warm clothing items, [and] locate a first aid kit, medicine, prescription drugs, and any essential medical equipment," she advises, adding that a full list of items to include in your emergency kit can be found on the FEMA website.

In addition to gathering the necessary supplies before the storm hits, Hollinshead warns against simple behaviors that might be deadly in the wrong circumstances. "If your home is damaged, never go back in or even in your yard or neighborhood until authorities say it is safe to do so. Power lines could be down or there could be damage to a natural gas line."

Furthermore, if your basement is flooded, she urges residents to "never walk [into it], because the water could be energized." For the same reason, you should steer clear of any downed power lines, even if they look harmless. "A downed power line does not have to be arcing (giving off a flame), sparking, buzzing, or hissing to be live," Hollinshead warns. Being without electricity is scary enough, but the dangers of raw electricity can be even more terrifying if homeowners don't take the necessary steps to prepare for severe storms before they arrive.

Carbon-Reducing Home Improvements

Stuart Mackintosh, executive director of the Group of Thirty, an independent international economic think tank, shines a light on the numerous ways in which political leaders, industry leaders, and community leaders can make structural changes to move the world towards a greener future in his book, Climate Crisis Economics. Mackintosh believes in the power of individuals to get us to a carbonless tomorrow, and that includes homeowners who can make simple, inexpensive changes to their properties that have a big impact on the overall wellness of our planet.

"Those stories need to be local, regional, and inclusive," he says. "We need to talk amongst ourselves about the reality of what we're living through. This is not something that's happening far away. This is something that is occurring to all of us in each of our communities."

According to Mackintosh, there are two things any homeowner should add to their eco-friendly to-do list right away. "The first thing you should do is change your power utility and start buying 100% renewable [energy]," he said. After that, Mackintosh recommends putting solar panels on the roof, especially considering the financial incentives many states offer for those who go this route.

More lifestyle changes include eating less meat, opting to buy a hybrid or electric vehicle (which also comes with major financial incentives), and trying to fly less. "All these things are not greatly difficult things to do," says Mackintosh. "In fact, they don't require very huge leaps, nor do they change the nature of our existence. They just change some of our choices, and oftentimes will make our lives better."

Whether you're trying to live a greener life or just trying to be ready for the next storm, there are feasible steps to take. The weather might not be predictable, and we might not know what the future holds, but we do know one thing: If we prepare our homes and help our neighbors prepare theirs, we can all breathe easier. After all, we're in this together, so let's use the resources at hand to be stronger when the time for fortitude is upon us.

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