Home security and protecting you and your family

Practically every part of the world is vulnerable to some kind of natural disaster that presents a major threat to homeowners. Wildfires can strike suddenly, with little warning. Tornadoes and hurricanes are powerful windstorms that can flatten homes in mere minutes and, in the case of hurricanes, can cause more problems in the form of floods from storm surges. Floods can happen anywhere there is heavy rain combined with any body of water, from lakes and oceans to mere streams. Earthquakes happen without any warning and can level entire sections of a city, leaving behind fires in its wake. One thing is common about all of these threats, however, and that is that the way to reduce damage to one's home is to prepare in advance and know how to respond in the event of a natural disaster.

Homeowners are at significant risk when a wildfire breaks out, as it can easily reach and burn their home and others nearby to ashes. However, there are ways to reduce the risk of damage or destruction in the event of a fire. When planning a new home, it is possible to use fire-resistant materials and construction techniques to make it more resistant to fires. This includes installing metal gutters and gutter guards, metal or stucco eaves and boxed-in eaves, and exterior walls made with cement board or masonry. Decks and fences should be made of metal, cement board, or bricks or other masonry-type materials. Regardless of how a home is made, however, homeowners can significantly reduce their risk of property loss by routinely clearing away vegetation from near the house and not storing flammable materials under decks or anywhere near the home. Installing fiberglass screens and vents with 1/8-inch metal screens can help keep embers from easily entering the house. Landscaping is also a potential asset or liability in wildfire defense.

During safe times when a wildfire isn't happening, preparation is essential. Residents should routinely prune tree limbs and shrubs on their property to reduce the amount of potential fuel for a fire. Gutters should be kept clean and free of any form of debris. Flammable items like woodpiles should not be located near the house, particularly during periods of hot weather. Plants within 30 feet of a house can help the fire jump to the house and cause damage or complete destruction. Certain types of plants, however, are fire-resistant, such as deciduous plants and some types of cacti and succulents. Another rule to observe is that taller plants and trees allow embers to endanger homes. Therefore, taller plants should be located farther away from the home.

In the event of an approaching wildfire, if possible, coat the roof with water, and fill buckets with water around the house while leaving ladders and water hoses connected and available for use by firefighters. Bring doormats, cushions, and any outdoor furniture indoors. If an evacuation is necessary, shut off gas lines at the meter as well as air conditioning, and close shutters, windows, and doors. An escape plan should be prepared in advance, before a wildfire occurs. There should be at least two routes out of the danger zone and to a designated evacuation area.

Flooding is the most common form of natural disaster that homeowners face. While there is no area that is immune to flooding, planning a new home on relatively high ground or in an area that's not a floodplain is the most effective form of flood protection possible. For existing homes, an expensive but effective option is to raise its foundation. When this is impossible or if the expense is too impractical, then home maintenance and some adjustments are key to increasing its resistance to flood damage. This includes preventing back-ups from the sewer by installing a one-way valve to block water from coming up from the sewer into the home's plumbing system. Another defense technique involves raising water heaters, furnaces, and other appliances, especially those located in basements. More expensive furniture and computers can be moved upstairs to lessen their risk of water damage as well. Community efforts to keep storm drains clear are also effective in reducing the magnitude of flooding in some areas.

If prolonged rains or a storm are predicted far enough ahead of time, residents may also want to try to build sandbag walls around their houses to reduce the amount of water that reaches their homes. Sandbags should be placed only two bags high, with the bag openings facing away from the projected flow of the water. In addition, residents should help others sandbag their homes as well. Sump pumps powered by generators can be useful in protecting a basement from flooding or minimizing the damage caused by flooding.

Since flooding can happen anywhere, all residents and families should have evacuation plans in place as a precaution. Disaster survival kits, potential escape routes, and evacuation destinations are all critical elements of preparing to escape a flood situation. Flood insurance, while potentially highly expensive, is also an invaluable method of financial protection in a worst-case scenario. In the event of heavy rains, it will be necessary to listen to local authorities and watch out for a flash flood warning. If this occurs, an immediate evacuation is the best course of action.

Hurricanes are widespread windstorms that can not only destroy homes through wind damage and hurling debris, but they also cause flooding via storm surges. In addition, hurricanes and even lesser windstorms can spawn tornadoes, which are much smaller but often faster-blowing windstorms. As with other natural disasters, residents will need an evacuation plan and maps to emergency shelters in case the worst comes to pass, as well as a survival kit. A typical survival kit includes at least a gallon of water per person, preferably for a week, as well as flashlights with fresh batteries and spare batteries, blankets, prescription medicine for those who need it, nonperishable food, extra cash, a radio, and a first aid kit. In addition, a disaster survival kit should have personal hygiene and sanitation supplies, personal documents that include proof of home ownership (typically a deed), birth certificates, government-issued identification, and a utility bill that proves that one is a resident at the home. Cell phones with phone chargers as well as family contact information are other important things to include in an emergency survival kit. Because hurricanes typically come with significant warning time, homeowners will want to watch the news during hurricane season in case a storm is developing that might threaten their property. People who live in a mobile home should always evacuate in the event of a tornado or hurricane warning, without exception, as should anyone in an area where an evacuation order has been issued.

Before the hurricane season begins, residents will want to keep trees and shrubbery trimmed so that large branches don't fall onto homes and cause damage. However, excessive trimming can be dangerous to the tree or even illegal. Shutters can reduce the risk of damage to windows from flying debris or rain, while hurricane clips can harden the roof structure against wind damage. Fortifying doors and garage doors can also reduce the risk of hurricane and tornado damage. Additional preparations should be made for flooding in case the risk of storm surges is deemed to be high.

Tornadoes often come with little warning. Hailstorms and severe thunderstorms are weather conditions that present a significant risk for tornadoes. If possible, homeowners in tornado-prone regions should build a safe room within the home or reinforce their cellar. A safe room is a room with hardened walls made of Kevlar or other bullet-resistant material, a portable toilet and, optimally, a survival kit and a two-way radio. It should also be securely anchored to the ground or foundation to reduce the risk of being lifted by powerful winds. A storm cellar provides similar protection, although it is not advised to seek protection there in the event of a hurricane if there is a threat of flooding due to a storm surge.

In the event of a tornado or hurricane warning, shuttering windows is more effective than leaving them open due to fast-flying debris. If there is time, turn off all propane tanks and bring indoors all outdoor equipment, grills, and outside furniture. If the residents are staying home during the storm, they should never go near windows or doors under any circumstances but rather stay on the first floor, preferably in the closet or the bathroom, and lay as close to the ground as possible.

Earthquakes are disasters that come without any warning whatsoever and can lead to widespread fires or landslides in their aftermath. Mobile homes and homes not properly secured on their foundations, or one that rest on weak foundations, unstable ground, or former landfills, are especially in danger of damage or collapse. In these cases, the proper defenses for homes are the most expensive, which include anchoring homes to their foundations and moving homes away from unstable ground. However, because earthquakes are so unpredictable, this may not only save on the cost of a new home but also save lives. In other cases, however, earthquake defense tactics are relatively inexpensive. For instance, residents should move heavy hanging objects away from areas where people sit or sleep. These include paintings and mirrors as well as works of art. To prevent other objects from falling onto people, secure loose cabinets and bookcases to the walls using bolts, and light fixtures located overhead should be braced or otherwise secured as well.

In the event of an earthquake, people who are indoors should get underneath a table or other similar furniture and cover their heads to avoid being hit by falling objects, then stay there until the earthquake ends. In addition, they should avoid windows or glass, which may shatter and cause injuries. When the shaking stops, turn off the gas immediately and dress in full pants and shirts with long sleeves as well as heavy gloves, socks, and shoes to avoid being injured by debris on the floor or elsewhere. Inspect the home for damage wherever it is safe to move around, and prepare to seek cover again in the case of aftershocks.

Natural disasters are a serious threat to everyone, including homeowners. Most people invest a lot of money and love in their homes and will want to do whatever possible to reduce or prevent damage to it and to themselves. Often, there is little time to prepare for home safety when a disaster strikes. Being aware of potential disasters and knowing how to prepare for them can make a huge difference in terms of one's safety.

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