This year’s West Coast weather forecast is looking wet, windy and wild as El Niño continues to strengthen in the Pacific Ocean. The ongoing drought in the West, mixed with the threat of heavy rains, puts residents, pets and property in serious storm danger. You can’t control the weather, but you can prepare for it.
So, what exactly is El Niño? El Niño occurs when the Pacific Ocean water temperature becomes abnormally warm near the equator. This seemingly small change can dramatically impact weather throughout the United States. It typically means more rain in the southern part of the country; cooler temperatures in the Desert Southwest, Southern Plains and Northern Gulf Coast; warmer temperatures in northern states from the Pacific Northwest all the way across the country to the Northeast; and less rain and snowfall for the Ohio Valley, Great Lakes and Northern Rockies.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has announced that El Niño will likely continue through the winter of 2016. While this might provide some relief from the four-year drought currently affecting much of the West, it may also bring severe rains, winds, flooding and mudslides.
The last strong El Niño took place during the winter of 1997-1998 and caused $550 million in storm damage within the state of California alone, as it brought record-breaking rainfall to the region. Mercury reported a 39 percent increase in homeowner claims and claims in impacted areas jumped 99 percent.
Mother Nature answers to no one, but there are things you can do during the calm before the storm to help minimize the damage. Here are a few things you can do to protect your family, pets and personal property when the rain begins to fall.
1. Update your Homeowner’s Insurance and Inventory List
Homeowner policies protect personal property, but many policyholders neglect to update them when purchases and home renovations are made. The best practice is to review and update your policy once a year. Ask yourself: do I have the coverage I need to replace all of my valuables and home if they are damaged or destroyed? Create an inventory list to document your personal property and keep it in a water safe and fire resistant box. This will help you determine the amount of coverage you need and simplify the claim process should you suffer a loss. If you rent, consider renters insurance to help protect your personal property in the event they suffer weather damage or other covered loss.
2. National Flood Insurance
Standard homeowners and renters insurance policies typically do not cover flood and mudflow damage. Recent drought and fires in the West could lead to dangerous consequences when the rains begin to fall, because many hillsides have been stripped of vegetation that hold them in place. With these anchors gone, it’s very possible the heavy rains could weaken the hillsides and create severe mudslides. Flash flooding is also a very real possibility, because the hard, dried out soil doesn’t absorb as much water and this can lead to sudden, fast-moving water – a combination with the capacity to do a lot of damage.
3. Disaster Planning
Make sure you create a disaster kit and emergency plan so you’re prepared, just in case you need it. Outline a communication plan with your family and establish an emergency meet-up location, along with escape routes if your home becomes unsafe. Create an emergency kit and include plenty of non-perishables – canned goods and dry foods – blankets and extra clothes, flashlights, batteries, cellphone chargers and first-aid supplies. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommends setting aside three gallons of water per person for a 72-hour period of time. People with pets should set aside three days of supplies for them as well.
4. Roof Inspection
Your roof plays a major role in protecting your possessions and the interior of your home. Wear and tear can compromise roof materials, so it’s a good idea to check it annually. Small problems can often snowball into much larger ones, and addressing repairs immediately can save you a lot of time and money down the line. Do a walk-through of your home and look for any obvious leaks, water rings or mold spots that might indicate possible roof damage. Examine the shingles (check for cracks in asphalt materials, dry rot on wood and signs of rust or pitting in metal materials) and inspect the flashings – metal pieces that cover gaps in the roof found around chimneys, dormers and vent pipes – to ensure they’re secure and not deteriorating.
5. Flooding and Electrical Safety
The combination of electricity and water is volatile so when faced with the possibility of flooding, consider taking electrical safety precautions. Know where your breaker box is located. The breaker controls the electrical supply system for your home, so make sure it’s clearly labeled. Unplug appliances that are not in use and be cautious of low to the ground outlets. Consider installing GFCI outlets. They are safer and will automatically cut power if electricity flows through an unintended path – like a person or water
Avoid areas in your home where appliance cords are plugged in or water has reached the outlets. If you see sparks or hear a buzzing noise, don’t enter the room. Some local power providers may preemptively shut off electricity in preparation for a flood. Never approach electrical boxes located at ground level and don’t enter flooded buildings until your local fire department and utility company have deemed them to be safe. Stay away from downed power lines and fallen tree limbs (they can conduct electricity). Contact an electrician to evaluate damage and assess safety after the flood recedes.
6. Protecting your Automobile
While your home can sustain substantial damage during a flood, so too can your vehicle. Be mindful of where you park and drive. Don’t park your car in areas that are prone to flooding. Know where the flood plains are and avoid driving on roads located in these areas if possible. Consider purchasing comprehensive coverage for your vehicle if you live in a flood-prone area to protect against flood damage.
Slick roads are also a leading cause of car crashes. Reduce your speed and maintain safe following distances while driving on wet roads and in rain. Rain decreases visibility and slippery road surfaces can cause braking delays. Use your headlights and avoid slamming on the brakes – especially when hydroplaning.
No one wants to get soaked, so don’t let yourself get caught in El Niño rains without an umbrella. Being prepared is the best defense against severe weather. Minimize damage to your property and always plan for the worst while hoping for the best.
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