How to protect your home and your wallet from natural disasters
The recent tornado that struck Sharkey County, Mississippi left a trail of terrible damage. More than 20 people were killed – an unusually high toll for a single event. Natural disasters cause substantial property and economic damage to the US each year, but due to better construction quality, the death toll is much lower than similar events in developing countries.
According to a 2021 Federal Reserve survey, 16% of Americans experienced some disruption from natural disasters in the past year, with property damage being the most commonly reported event.
Many Americans wrestle with how to prepare for natural disasters and climate-related events. When I moved to Downtown Los Angeles in 2009, my parents were worried that I would get hurt in an earthquake. Although my apartment building—built in 1911 as offices and later converted to condos—had stood intact for nearly 100 years, my parents envisioned it collapsing like an accordion. They sent care packages containing the essentials for a disaster survival kit: a solar-powered radio, a flashlight, a first aid kit, as well as notes reminding me to keep bottled water on hand.
Predicting the exact timing, location and severity of tornadoes, earthquakes and other disasters is impossible even with the best scientific data and methods. But even in the face of uncertainty, there are a number of strategies that can reduce the risks to our homes, neighborhoods, and financial well-being. At the same time, we must recognize the limits of individual actions and invest in comprehensive community planning.
What risks should you be prepared for?
Identifying relevant natural disaster risks is not as easy as it sounds. Many of us can accurately predict that California has a high earthquake risk, while Florida is more likely to be hit by hurricanes. But most US territories face a range of risks. Southern California has a 75% chance of a very large earthquake occurring in the next 30 years. But statistically, earthquakes are not the most likely event: From 1950 to 2017, about 7% of state emergency declarations were related to earthquakes, compared to 40% for floods and 30% for fires.
Often, the less obvious risks do the most damage to our homes and infrastructure, because we haven’t prepared for them. The Pacific Northwest traditionally has mild summers, and most homes do not have air conditioning – so an unexpected heat wave poses a greater public health risk, especially to older adults and other vulnerable groups. Homes in southern states such as Texas and Mississippi are generally built to withstand hot weather, but cold snaps can cause pipes to freeze and rupture, flooding homes.
Even at small geographic scales, both natural geography and built environment features influence vulnerability to natural disasters. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s interactive climate change mapping tool, some city blocks in downtown Los Angeles have a flood risk below the 50th percentile, while other blocks less than a mile away—near the Los Angeles River—are at the 90th percentile. are above.
Geophysical tools that can map different types of climate risk at the neighborhood (or even property) level are now becoming more available to the general public. However, it is not yet clear whether or how people will incorporate this information into their housing decisions. For most Americans the variation in climate risks probably will not be a primary factor in the choice of location. People decide which city to live in based on job opportunities, proximity to family and friends, or more harmless climatic aspects such as sunshine and warm temperatures.
However, on a smaller scale, climate mapping tools can be helpful in guiding people to low-risk neighborhoods within their preferred city. A study by real estate firm Redfin suggests that showing property-level climate risk scores to potential home buyers could encourage them to look for lower-risk homes. Perhaps, over time, local climate risk will become another neighborhood feature, similar to mapping subway stations or checking the local restaurant scene as people research when deciding where to move or buy a home. .
Strengthening your home against earthquake, wind, water and fire
Many of the high-rise buildings in the historic core of Downtown Los Angeles date from the 1910s and 1920s, when the neighborhood was home to banks and other financial services. The geographic center of the city shifted west after World War II, leaving dozens of mostly vacant buildings. In the 1990s, as the demand for downtown housing began to increase, the city passed an adaptive reuse ordinance that allowed older commercial buildings to be converted into homes.
By then, architects and engineers had developed more effective and sophisticated construction techniques to protect tall buildings from seismic activity—an important consideration in both LA and the Bay Area. Converting a vacant office building to condos requires the developer to retrofit the building to comply with modern building codes. Seismic upgrades are expensive, ranging from $40,000 for small buildings to more than $1 million for large buildings. But they are highly effective in protecting structures and the people inside in the event of an earthquake.
Seismic retrofit is just one example of how building techniques, materials and construction techniques can help protect against natural disasters and climate events. As technology improved, many states adopted building codes requiring new homes to include new safety features ranging from fire-resistant exterior building materials in Western states to wind-strengthened roofs and windows in Florida. it occurs. But building code changes typically aren’t applied retroactively, and many older homes aren’t built to withstand today’s climate stresses without adequate upgrades and ongoing maintenance. Today, the typical American home is more than 40 years old – the oldest stock we have of housing. Mobile homes (which account for about 30% of homes in Sharkey County, MS) are the most affordable homes in rural areas, but are especially vulnerable to hurricanes and tornadoes.
Figuring out what types of structural upgrades can make your home safer requires both expert guidance on technical options and a little financial math. For example, pruning vegetation near your home can reduce the risk of wildfire damage at a relatively small cost; On the other hand, replacing the wood exterior with fire-proof brick can cost more than $60,000. Homeowners with good credit and high value homes may be able to finance these upgrades with a home equity loan, but this is neither feasible nor prudent for many people. And tenants are generally not allowed to alter the structural features of their homes, although they can request that their landlords improve security.
The Fine Print on Your Homeowners or Renters Insurance
Mortgage lenders require home buyers to purchase property insurance to protect the value of the collateral, but standard policies have limits on what they will cover. Importantly, damages caused by earthquakes and floods are not covered. Insurance companies sell special policies for natural calamities, but these policies are very expensive. (Only about 10% of California homeowners have earthquake insurance.) Homeowners in high flood-risk areas who have federally backed mortgages are required to purchase flood insurance through the federal National Flood Insurance Program, But the increasing frequency and size of insurance payments due to a changing climate is causing intense financial strain on both private and public insurance programs.
Renters can and should purchase property insurance, which covers the value of their personal belongings. For those who want to live in places where climate is a high risk and part of the draw (think beach property in South Florida), renting offers some advantages over buying. Tenants commit to living only for the term of the lease (usually one year), and in addition, diversified financial assets such as mutual funds are less exposed to climate risk than putting all their life savings into a down payment on a single home. are affected. Underwater (literally and figuratively) in 10 years.
Outlining an action plan for households to reduce their climate and natural disaster risk is only the first step. Further challenges arise from finding effective ways to encourage and support people in implementing these plans. Florida to see fastest population growth of any US state in 2022, not because it’s oblivious to on-and-off hurricanes, but because people love beaches and sunshine. Poor people live in risky places, such as flood-prone neighborhoods in Houston, because housing there is cheap and they have few other options.
There are limits to how much we can accomplish through individual efforts. We would all be safer if we lived in neighborhoods where nearby buildings and infrastructure assets were retrofitted to withstand natural disasters. Federal disaster recovery programs are poorly designed to provide assistance to vulnerable communities. We also need to address the ways in which our current systems of housing, land use and transport harm the environment. Accomplishing these larger goals will require building broad political coalitions rather than merely preaching to the choir.
I’ve never needed to use the disaster kit my parents provided. The biggest earthquake I experienced during my five years in LA occurred around 5 a.m., and I slept right through it, thanks to the building’s highly effective seismic retrofits. Or maybe it was just good luck.
Jenny Schuetz is a Senior Fellow at Brookings Metro.
The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Luck,
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