Though there are no definite safeguards against natural disasters like Hurricane Irene and Tuesday's earthquake, experts say there are simple steps to try to protect your family and minimize property damage and financial costs.
1. Prepare for Phone Interruptions
Tigger Freeman, an accountant living in a community 10 miles from the earthquake's epicenter in Mineral, Va., said he and his neighbors were relieved to learn from family members via text that the North Anna Power Station, less than 35 miles away, had been shut down automatically and no damage had been reported. Meanwhile, phone lines were jammed and they had no internet access after the electricity was shut down.
"The people who were running the plant put out good information to let us know they shut the plant down," he said.
Paul Reynolds, electronics editor with Consumer Reports, said cell phone users can usually text more successfully than call when a network experiences high volume, like during 9/11, because texting uses less data. But those not familiar with texting may need a tutorial. He said a full QWERTY keyboard makes it easy to text versus a numeric keypad on basic cellphones, which can be more cumbersome and harder to learn.
Judy Spry, partner in the insurance claims services practice at BDO Consulting, advises business owners to have a communication plan, in case neither phone and texting is available.
"In the instance of Hurricane Katrina, cell phone towers and land lines went out and employers and employees had no way of communicating the disaster plan," she said. "Be sure employees know and understand the disaster plan in advance and each have a copy of it they can easily refer to."
2. Create a Disaster Plan, or Test Your Current One
Julie Rochman, president and CEO of the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, said it is important to create a plan for your family to act quickly in the event of an evacuation.
"If you wait until the very last minute to do everything, you're not going to get anything done. If hurricane watchers warn you to get out, you need to get out, especially in dense areas," Rochman said.
Homeowners should consider which valuable objects they will take with them in case of evacuation.
"People think about computers and jewelry, but not family heirlooms or photos on the wall," Rochman said.
Spry said a disaster plan should clearly communicate pre- and post-hurricane procedures to any relevant people. For families, that includes near and far relatives and friends. Business owners should communicate disaster plans to employees, customers, vendors, and business partners.
Spry said the safety of people, such as employees and customers, should be the first procedure. The plan should next address how to protect your property and business records.
"Make preparations in advance to potentially change locations or outsource manufacturing, distribution, sales operations, and administrative functions to help reduce losses. Train employees in the disaster plan procedures to ensure they all know what to do in case a disaster strikes unexpectedly," Spry said.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, also has a dedicated website for hurricane preparedness.
3. Check Insurance Policies
Scott Spencer, senior vice president of Chubb Personal Insurance, said homeowner's policies usually do not cover loss due to flooding, but coverage can be purchased from the federal government. Homeowners can ask their agents about the details or contact the National Flood Insurance Program at 1-800-427-4661.
He said it is important to review your homeowners policy with your agent or broker so you understand the amount you will receive in the event of a covered loss, and whether it will be adequate to rebuild your home.
He also advised homeowners to know the amount of a deductible and any special provisions in the policy such as wind exclusions. And include your insurance company's toll free claim number and insurance agent's phone number in your emergency evacuation kit.
"Know your responsibilities, such as installing shutters, making arrangements to have your home secured if you are away, and verifying that emergency generators and sump pumps are functioning," Spencer said.
Spry cautions that homeowners and business owners should never fully rely on an insurance policy.
"The main point is that these are only insurance policies," she said. "Treat your property and business as if you had no insurance. Insurance is not the 'end all, be all' to save a business."
4. Assess Your House for Vulnerabilities
Rochman advises homeowners to check for potential problem areas of a house in case of a disaster.
"Take a walk around outside, look at old or damaged trees that are overhanging or can fall on your roof. And trim your trees," she said.
You should also make sure the roof does not have holes or is missing shingles. To safeguard against strong winds, you may have to nail down new shingles.
"Look at lawn furniture, fountains, play equipment that could become projectiles and slam into your house with the wind," he said.
Some fix-it tasks can be completed over a weekend, such as reinforcing a garage door, vents and a gable, or triangular, roof, so water does not leak in. Those living in low lying areas where coastal storms surge should move electronic devices off the ground floor and put heavy furniture on blocks to prevent damage from flooding. Also, homeowners should roll up rugs.
"You can't pick up carpet but you can pick up rugs which become sponges if wet," she said.
Spencer also advises that you look around your neighborhood for vulnerabilites.
"Given the amount of home foreclosures since the economic downturn, homeowners should look around their neighborhoods for vacant homes that could pose a threat in a storm due to dead tree limbs or other debris around the property," Spencer said.
If a hurricane or tropical storm approaches, homeowners should notify the lender or bank that has taken ownership of the foreclosed property, as well as town officials, of concerns regarding foreclosed homes, he said.
5. Take Video or Photos for a Home Inventory
For insurance purposes and for your own personal keepsake in case of a disaster, Rochman said you should have a home inventory or a photographic record.
"Walk around with a video or still camera and take pictures of everything," she said. While you are doing that, you can consider which few items to bring in case of an evacuation.
6. Consider Important Supplies
FEMA recommends people should have at least a three-day supply of water and you should store at least one gallon of water per person per day. Rochmann recommends at least a week's supply of water.
A normally active person needs at least one-half gallon of water daily just for drinking, but sometimes children, nursing mothers, the sick and people in hot temperatures may require more, according to FEMA.
Rochman also said you should have covered foods and about a month's supply of medication. You should also prepare traditional and special batteries for products like cell phones.
"If you're going to get a generator make sure you know how to use it," Rochman said. "Never set it up in a garage or inside because they're gasoline powered."
7. Shelter Considerations: Pets
Rochman said that during Hurricane Katrina, there were some people who did not evacuate as recommended because they had pets, or they did not know what to do with their pets.
"If you're going to evacuate and you have pets, be sure you go where pets will be accepted," she said. "There are more hotels in storm prone areas where pets are accepted."
"You want to get rid of whatever excuse people have for staying so people evacuate," Rochman said.