Question: I see that Hurricane Florence is predicted to hit the Southeast hard later this week. Is there anything I can still do to protect myself?
Answer: It's not too late to take steps to protect your home and finances from the hurricane. Here are some last-minutes moves to make:
Secure your home. When a hurricane is coming, it's too late to do major home improvements. But even something as simple as closing all interior doors can help. "If a window or door is broken by flying debris or has blown open, your house will rapidly fill with air -- much like a balloon inflating inside your house. This 'balloon' pushes additional force on a roof that already is fighting the weather outside, and can break the house apart. Closing interior doors helps reduce that force on the roof," says Roy Wright, president and CEO of the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety.
The best time to protect your home from hurricanes is when you're replacing your roof. But even a few days before a hurricane, you can still walk around your house and shine a light in your attic to make sure any tiny cracks are sealed so water can't come in, says Leslie Chapman-Henderson, CEO of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes. Caulk and seal around doors and windows. Clean your gutters, and make sure downspouts are clear and pointing away from the house. Make sure your sump pump is working, and consider a battery-powered backup sump pump. If you're in a high-risk area, you can protect your windows with 5/8-inch plywood or thick plastic shields. (And when you have more time, consider impact-resistant glass or storm shutters and impact-tested doors.)
Your garage door is often the largest and weakest opening. Make sure the rollers and tracks are tightened, and consider buying a kit to brace the door, says Chapman-Henderson. Also check all exterior door frames to make sure that the screws are tight and that the length of the deadbolt reaches all the way to the door frame. See advice from the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, including its Hurricane Strong advice for activities you can do to help protect your home from hurricanes in one hour, one day or one weekend. Also see the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety's step-by-step guidance to help protect your home from hurricanes. Our slide show How to Protect Your Home from Hurricanes has more information about longer-term projects that can help.
Check out government resources. Your state emergency management agency may offer advice and updates on Hurricane Florence. For example, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety has a page devoted to preparing for Hurricane Florence, as well as information about the ReadyNC app for up-to-date information about traffic, shelters and evacuations. The South Carolina Emergency Management Division and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management also have Florence-specific information and updates. On the federal level, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers hurricane preparation checklists and Florence-specific advice, as well as contacts for states' emergency management divisions. And the Department of Homeland Security's hurricane preparation page at Ready.gov includes steps to take starting 36 hours before a hurricane hits. You can sign up for weather alerts from the National Weather Service.
Create a home inventory. This is the number-one thing that hurricane victims say helped them get their claims paid smoothly. Take your smartphone and walk through your house, open up closets and drawers, and make a video of your home and possessions. Then store it on the cloud or in a way you can access it outside your home. Many insurance companies and the National Association of Insurance Commissioners have inventory tools (see InsureUOnline.org's disaster preparation page for more information about the app). Gather records of valuable purchases and other key documents. See How To Get Your Insurer to Pay Your Claims for more information about working with your insurer if your home is damaged.
Understand your insurance coverage. Many people don't realize until after a hurricane that their claims may not be paid if the damage is determined to be from flooding -- as many Houston residents discovered after Hurricane Harvey. Homeowners insurance covers wind damage and wind-driven rain, but not flooding, which is water from the ground up. For that, you'll need a separate flood insurance policy. The National Flood Insurance Program has a 30-day waiting period before its coverage kicks in. Private insurers often have shorter waiting periods, but they usually have a moratorium on new policies when a storm is on its way. See Getting Affordable Flood Insurance for more information. Also find out whether you have a higher deductible for windstorms (some policies have a deductible of 2% to 5% of your coverage amount for windstorms and hurricanes, even if the policy usually has a deductible of $500 to $1,000 for other kinds of damage).
Clear the yard. It's probably too late to get someone to come trim your trees in the next few days, but it's a good idea to do what you can to remove dead limbs and secure anything else that could end up being a projectile during high winds, such as patio furniture, lawn ornaments and grills. "Some people will throw their patio furniture into the pool," says the Insurance Institute's Rochman. Hurricane or not, it's a good idea to trim your trees once a year -- not only are tree limbs a common cause of damage, but you'll generally have limited coverage to remove a fallen tree. See Your Tree, Your Neighbor's Property: Whose Insurance Pays? for more information.
Pack an emergency kit. It isn't unusual for the electricity to be out for a while after a storm hits, so make sure you have flashlights, batteries and a phone that plugs into the wall and isn't dependent on electricity. Keep your gas tank filled, and go to the ATM to get some extra cash because those services could be out for an extended time after a storm. And gather key information in case you need to leave quickly, including your insurance policy and the contact information for your insurance agent, family, employer and financial institutions. Find out the best way to contact your insurer after a storm. Some insurers have mobile apps that make it easy to contact them and submit a claim. Also see Must-Have Items for Your Emergency Kit.
To learn how homeowners recovered from Hurricane Harvey, see Rebuilding Your Home and Finances After Disaster Strikes. For information on filing an insurance claim, go to How to Get Your Insurer to Pay Your Claims.
As the "Ask Kim" columnist for Kiplinger's Personal Finance, Lankford receives hundreds of personal finance questions from readers every month. She is the author of Rescue Your Financial Life (McGraw-Hill, 2003), The Insurance Maze: How You Can Save Money on Insurance -- and Still Get the Coverage You Need (Kaplan, 2006), Kiplinger's Ask Kim for Money Smart Solutions (Kaplan, 2007) and The Kiplinger/BBB Personal Finance Guide for Military Families. She is frequently featured as a financial expert on television and radio, including NBC's Today Show, CNN, CNBC and National Public Radio.