12 Tips to Disaster-Proof Your Home and Finances

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Thunderstorms struck from Iowa to Maryland at the end of June and left millions without power, some for more than a week. The following heat wave made matters worse.

I can sympathize – I clearly remember when Hurricane Wilma hit South Florida in 2005 and left me and thousands of others without power or drinkable water for two full weeks. While nobody can tame Mother Nature, there are a lot of precautions we can take to protect our homes, family, and electronics from major storms. Here are some ideas from The Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH) and generator maker Kohler

1. Make the most of empty space

Use empty freezer space to freeze water in the event power goes out. FLASH says, “Consider filling plastic containers with water, leaving about an inch of space inside each one. Remember, water expands as it freezes so it is important to leave room in the container for the expanded water.” Without power, your refrigerator/freezer will be like picnic coolers. The ice containers will keep them cold longer.

2. Back up and stock up

Regularly back up your computer’s files. There are lots of free services to do so – some of the major ones are Amazon Cloud Drive, Apple’s iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive, and Microsoft SkyDrive. There’s nothing stopping you from using more than one if you fill up all your free space. (They make money by charging for extra space and services.)

Turn off electronics when you aren’t using them, and you’ll save power and know that they’re safely shut down.

Stock up on batteries for your electronics, and have a battery-powered everything: radio, flashlight, clock, and fan. Consider a power converter for your laptop. “A power converter allows most laptops (12 volts or less) to be operated from the cigarette lighter of a vehicle,” FLASH says. There are also radios and flashlights powered by a hand-crank.

Remember – when there’s no electricity, there’s no gas. At the first sign of impending peril, fill up the car, and if you have a generator, gas cans too.

3. Protect against surges and fires

Remember the difference between a power strip (which might have surge protection) and a surge protector (which often looks like a power strip, but offers surge protection). If the packaging doesn’t mention surge protection/suppression, or you can’t remember if it did, don’t assume the device will protect against surges.

Energy.gov explains how to safely use surge protectors and warns against using any kind of power strip for appliances such as microwaves, fridges, toaster ovens, and coffee makers. Replace any surge protectors that are hot to the touch or made before 1998. Also avoid crazy daisy-chaining or leaving strips hanging by their cord.

4. Don’t get locked out

Have an electric garage door opener? Better find out where the manual release lever is and learn to use it. You may need an extra pair of hands to lift the door. FLASH adds, “If you regularly use the garage as the primary means of entering your home upon return from work, be sure to keep a key to your house with you.”

5. Get a corded phone for landlines

A cordless phone or answering machine won’t work if the power’s out. Your cell phone may be difficult to charge or have reduced service in and after a major storm. FLASH says you should plan on alternate, traditional communication: “a standard telephone handset, radio, or pager.”

6. Make a plan

Kohler suggests devising an emergency plan including important phone numbers, an evacuation route, and an established meeting place in case you lose communication. Make sure to keep paper copies around – digital might not do any good.

Planning should also include knowing how to right things afterward. Familiarize yourself with your main electrical panel, and make a chart of breaker positions and what they feed. You may have to reset circuit breakers after an outage.

7. Create a kit

Take a backpack or large plastic bucket and fill it with three days’ worth of food and water, a flashlight, battery-operated radio, first aid kit, money, medications, and a USB drive with important files. Keep it in a place you can get to in an emergency, but somewhere safe.

8. Leave a light on

Kohler recommends leaving a light on so you’ll be able to see when power comes back. But if you’re evacuating and come back unsure the power was ever off, beware of the food in your refrigerator.

Here’s a trick someone told me a few years ago: Leave a penny on top of an ice cube in the freezer. If you come back and the penny’s refrozen at the bottom of the tray (or sitting in water), you know there was a lengthy outage that allowed the ice to melt completely. Which means it’s time to go grocery shopping.

9. Don’t get shocked

Avoid fallen wires, flooded areas, and debris. Assume that anything touching a downed wire will fry you. Kohler says to inspect the area around your electricity meter too, and if you suspect any damage, call the power company.

10. Be careful with generators

Kohler warns against connecting portable generators directly to your electrical system. Instead, plug in key appliances directly, like the fridge. They also warn about using extension cords – “be sure to use properly rated extension cords (electrical load and length)” – and venting to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. (Don’t use a generator “in your home or an enclosed space with limited ventilation like a garage or a screened porch.”)

11. Make an inventory

You could lose everything you own in a moment’s notice through natural disaster, fire, or other bit of bad luck. That’s why you should always have a home inventory – the insurance company won’t pay you for things you don’t remember to claim. And there’s no way you’ll remember everything. So make a home inventory, either by writing everything down, or simply using your cell phone or other camera and videotaping everything, while dictating when you bought it and how much it cost. See our story The Most Important Thing You Can Do Today.

12. Protect your paperwork

Take difficult-to-replace papers and put them in a water-proof container. Keep it where you can grab it and run. First priority is things with raised seals and original signatures: your car titles, your passport, your home deed – you get the idea. Keep them in a safe place where you can quickly grab them and go.

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