The Atlantic hurricane season is upon us -- it runs from June 1 to Nov. 30 -- and it could be a big one. One agency is predicting almost two dozen named storms and six to 10 hurricanes.
It may not be as bad as last year, when the World Meteorological Organization ran out of alphabetical names for the storms and resorted to using Greek letters. Nevertheless, it's going to be a doozy for the 7 million-plus single-family houses and 253,000 multifamily units that CoreLogic says are at risk from water and wind damage.
Last year was the third most active year on record in terms of named storms. But of course, hurricanes aren't the only natural disasters we face. The National Centers for Environmental Information reports that in 2021, there were 58,733 fires that burned 7,139,713 acres. And tornadoes seem to be popping up more frequently than ever.
Against this backdrop, it's no wonder that 6 out of 10 Americans told pollsters they believe they'll be affected personally by a disaster in the next few years. Unfortunately, that same study of 2,050 people -- conducted by the Harris Poll on behalf of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) -- also found that 85% of us have yet to create a disaster plan to protect our homes and finances.
In the face of a natural disaster, protecting your family and your property from harm should be your top priority. But in the aftermath, access to financial resources and personal information is critically important.
There's much to do when a major disaster is afoot, and you can never be too ready. When flooding is imminent or predicted, National Flood Insurance Program policyholders are eligible to receive up to $1,000 to purchase loss-avoidance supplies like tarps and sandbags. And if Uncle Sam declares a disaster, special tax provisions may help you recover financially. The IRS can give you more time to file a return and pay your taxes, for example, and it can speed up refunds.
Beyond that, you are going to need cash. Banks and ATMs will likely be closed or damaged, so you'll want some money in your pocket. To get a handle on how much you'll need, run some calculations now: Factor in lodging, transportation, food and other expenses you're likely to incur.
Now's also a good time to review your insurance policies to be sure you have the right coverage. Make sure you know what is covered and what isn't, and don't be afraid to comparison shop periodically to see if switching makes sense.
Make copies of all your important medical, personal and financial records, including passports and birth certificates. Keep a set with you so you can grab them if you have to evacuate, and stash another set in a safe place at a distant location -- perhaps the home of a relative, or in a safe deposit box.
After a disaster, the IRS can help taxpayers reconstruct their financial records, which may be essential for documenting a tax-deductible loss or obtaining federal assistance. The agency also offers several publications about applying for help from Uncle Sam, determining your losses and other pertinent topics.
Write down the names, phone numbers and account numbers of your banks, mortgage servicers, insurers, lawyers and accountants, and keep the list in a safe place with your keys and other papers.
Take an inventory of all your belongings, too. This will make it easier to deal with your insurer, especially if the company questions your claim. Make a complete list, or use your phone or camera to film the contents of each room, top to bottom.
Beyond these financial steps, do whatever you can to protect your dwelling. Admittedly, retrofitting your place is an expensive proposition, but there are a few affordable things you can do: For example, trim your trees regularly to remove weak branches that can become window-shattering missiles. And make sure your gutters are clear so they can channel away as much rain as possible.
Because blackouts can set off a chain reaction of disasters -- houses fires often result from candles burned during power outages, for example, and pipes can freeze when the heat goes off -- consider installing a backup generator to keep your power on. Larger units are capable of running an entire house, but they are expensive, costing upwards of $15,000. But small, portable generators with enough capacity to run the HVAC system and the refrigerator for several hours start at about $300.
You also should plan an evacuation route well ahead of time, in case you have to skedaddle. Plan a second route, too, just in case your first option is blocked.
Try to figure out where you'll go and specifically where you'll stay. Only a third of those queried in the Harris/AICPA survey have such a plan, and only a third have assembled a disaster supply kit.
Speaking of which, your kit should include three days' worth of drinking water, batteries, candles or oil lamps with fuel, matches, prescription drugs, first-aid supplies, flashlights, a few basic tools and perhaps a tarp and plywood. If you need to evacuate, grab your kit and run, don't walk.