In the United States, it has been a relatively quiet year for catastrophes. There were wildfires along the West Coast earlier in the year; the earthquake in Napa Valley, Calif., in August; and flooding in the Midwest, Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. The recent Polar Vortex that blanketed much of the country and dropped more than five feet of snow in some areas has also done extensive damage in terms of collapsed roofs and structures. Flooding from the melting snow may produce secondary damage for many homeowners.

No one can be totally prepared for everything, but taking steps before a disaster strikes can minimize the impact for insurers and their policyholders.

Here are some recommendations to help prepare for a wide variety of catastrophes.

General Preparation

  • Prepare a photo inventory of your home or office. Go room by room and take digital photos of the contents. Pay particular attention to antiques, unique works of art, office equipment and any irreplaceable items. Jewelry, furs, expensive “toys,” electronics, collections (i.e., stamps, coins, dolls, pottery, etc.) should be catalogued and may require their own policies depending on their value. Memories become fuzzy and establishing the value of heavily damaged items becomes a challenge after the fact.

  • Monitor the weather either with alerts on your desktop or phone, or on the television. This will keep you abreast of possible storms, hurricanes, snowstorms and tornadoes, so you can contact your policyholders, prepare your office and move resources into position for after the weather event.

  • Select several key news outlets like one of the major networks, the Weather Channel or several local news stations around the country to track breaking news of storms and other disasters so you’re notified as soon as possible.

  • Create an emergency disaster kit with items like batteries, bottled water, canned goods and a can opener, matches and flashlights in case a disaster hits with little notice. Most people have these items in their homes, but tracking them all down when the lights are out can be a challenge.

  • Prepare a file with all insurance policies, the photo inventory, names of contractors — e.g., roofer, plumber, electrician, disaster restoration company, etc. and keep this in a safe but accessible location.

  • Analyze possible threats to your business — i.e., fire, tornado, hurricane, earthquake, server crash, data breach, theft.

  • Determine how your company can and should respond to each threat.

  • Identify specific situations that put disaster plans in motion when facing a threat.

  • Create a plan in case a disaster hits without warning.

  • Involve your team in the planning and communicate often.

  • Identify vendors who can respond to a wide variety of perils, have the necessary training, expertise, equipment and insurance policies. Vet them in advance, check references and see what type of response times they can guarantee if a major disaster occurs.

  • Today’s technology allows companies to be far more mobile than their predecessors, especially with proper planning, so consider taking your company mobile:

    1. Convert paper files to electronic files when possible.

    2. Set up several laptops to access agency management systems remotely.

    3. Create an employee phone tree with cell phone numbers, distribute the emergency numbers and test the process before a disaster hits.

    4. Investigate text communication options for your staff and clients. If feasible, gather client cell phone numbers and test the system regularly.

According to the Small Business Administration, roughly 40-60% of businesses never reopen following a disaster. “A business continuity plan is an essential factor of a small company’s long-term success and will contribute to the community’s economic recovery in the aftermath of a disaster,” says Maria Contreras-Sweet, administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Wildfires

Creating a fire-resistant zone around a building through landscaping can help protect it from burning vegetation. This involves dividing the area around the structure into “zones” and planting the appropriate shrubs for each zone.

Zone 1 is the area closest to the building and involves the space from the structure out to about 50 feet. Vegetation in this area should include small, low-growing plants that won’t provide fuel for the fire.

Zone 2 ranges from 30-100 feet from the building and should have low-growing ground cover that is resistant to fire. When properly maintained, these plants can help stop a fire before it reaches a structure.

Zone 3 falls 70-100 feet from the structure and is a transition area where low fuel-volume plants and native vegetation would be planted. They should be thinned out regularly to prevent becoming fuel for a fire. Other factors that impact this zone are the steepness and slope of the area and the size and density of the vegetation. Sloped areas cause fire to move more rapidly than flat areas. Approximately 20 feet of space should be left between large shrubs and trees in this area.

Zone 4 is 100 feet from the structure and comprises native vegetation. All plants should be pruned to reduce volume for wildfires. Avoid creating “ladder fuels” with low-lying vegetation that can ignite larger or higher bushes and branches on trees nearby by allowing vertical separation between plants.

“Firescaping” with the right plants can also reduce the risk of fire. Fire smart plants are those with a higher moisture content that are usually low growing and have stems or leaves that don’t have oily residues. Plants such as evergreens, junipers and conifers have resins and waxes that can burn intensely. Ornamental grasses and berries are also highly flammable.

Roofs are easy targets during a wildfire, so non-combustible materials are recommended. Tree branches should be trimmed back from the structure, and dead trees and vines should be removed completely. Clean leaves out of gutters and stack firewood at least 30 feet away from the house.

Exterior walls are susceptible to a wildfire’s heat. Masonry walls like stone or brick, and cement, plaster or stucco materials are more heat resistant. While vinyl, aluminum and steel may not burn, the high heat from the fire can affect their integrity. The heat will also cause glass skylights, windows and doors to fracture. Using single- or double-pane windows reduces the chances of fracturing.

Weather Events

Today’s technology allows forecasters to identify hurricanes at their earliest inception — usually when they are halfway around the globe. You don’t need to be a weather expert, but it’s smart to be familiar with storm terminology so you know when it’s time to gear up your resources for a hurricane or other weather event.

Hurricanes

It is important to be familiar with hurricane terminology:

Tropical Storm — A low-pressure, tropical system with winds near the center between 39 and 73 mph.

Hurricane — A hurricane has sustained winds near the center of a tropical storm that reach 74 mph.

Watch — Means conditions are possible. Occurs within 36 hours of a hurricane or tropical storm.

Warning — When a hurricane or tropical storm is expected in a specified area within 24 hours.

Eye — The center of a hurricane with the strongest winds and heaviest rains.

Storm Surge — The onshore push of ocean water from high winds that makes landfall.

Tornadoes

Tornadoes are categorized according to the Fujita Tornado Intensity Scale. The categories can cause everything from light damage from high winds to major devastation. Here is a short description of each category from the NOAA:

Category F0 — Gale tornado with wind speeds of 40-74 mph. These usually cause light damage such as breaking tree branches, blowing sign boards and may damage some chimneys.

Category F1 — With wind speeds of 73-112 mph, a moderate tornado is capable of pulling the surface off of roofs, pushing mobile homes off of their foundations and forcing vehicles off of the road.

Category F2 — Tornadoes in this category have winds clocked at 113-157 mph and are considered significant. They can cause considerable damage like demolishing mobile homes, push over boxcars on trains, snap or uproot large trees and make any light object into a dangerous projectile.

Category F3 — Severe tornadoes with 158-206 mph winds fall into this category and are capable of tearing off roofs and walls, overturning trains and lifting heavy cars off of the ground.

Category F4 — At 207-260 mph, these winds cause devastating damage. Well-constructed homes can be leveled and structures with a weak foundation can be blown off some distance.

Category F5 — This is almost a Wizard of Oz-size storm with winds at 260-318 mph, capable of incredible damage such as carrying homes a considerable distance before they are disintegrated. Automobiles can become dangerous missiles and the bark can literally be blown off of trees.

Lessons Learned

Insurance Auto Auctions shares five lessons their company learned from responding to catastrophes:

  1. Coordinate with local authorities and value their crisis response process.

  2. Review your catastrophe plans and make sure they are up to date.

  3. Closely monitor severe weather.

  4. Work with first responders and other stakeholders ahead of time to formulate emergency plans.

  5. Time management is critical — especially after a severe CAT. Maximize your resources with proper planning.

Effective catastrophe plans anticipate the worse and cover a variety of scenarios. Since insurers are often the first line of defense when a catastrophe strikes, this is one area where policyholders can learn from the experts to effectively manage their risks.